Living Worlds

Tagged: Theme

The notion that a planet might be a living creature is a rather startling one; indeed, it was initially used purely for its shock value. In R A Kennedy's remarkable philosophical extravaganza The Triuneverse (1912), Mars begins to reproduce by binary fission and its daughter cells devour much of the solar system. In "When the World Screamed" (25 February-3 March 1928 Liberty; April-May 1928 Strand) by Arthur Conan Doyle a hole is drilled through the Earth's "skin" and the living flesh within reacts against the violation. Other attempts to exploit this shock value include Edmond Hamilton's "The Earth-Brain" (April 1932 Weird Tales), Jack Williamson's "Born of the Sun" (March 1934 Astounding) – in which the Sun is living, the planets are its eggs, and Earth hatches – and Nelson Bond's "And Lo! The Bird" (September 1950 Blue Book). The perishability of easy shock value inevitably gives rise to an escalation of scale; Laurence Manning soon took the idea to its extreme in "The Living Galaxy" (September 1934 Wonder Stories). A rare film example of a living "wild planet" features in Il Pianeta Errante (1966; vt War Between the Planets).

The notion of living Stars seems to fascinate sf writers more than that of living planets. Austere stellar intelligences are featured in Star Maker (1937) by Olaf Stapledon, though Stapledon discarded a first draft which featured the exploits of intelligent nebulae; this was later published as Nebula Maker (1976). (An intelligent nebula, albeit a very small one, figures as the title character in Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud, 1957.) There are vestiges here of the occasional medieval equation of stars and angels, seen also in William Blake's poem "The Tyger" (in Songs of Experience, coll 1794). More recent examples of living stars are found in C S Lewis The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (1952), Gérard Klein's Starmaster's Gambit (1958; trans 1973), Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Frederik Pohl's and Jack Williamson's Starchild (1965) and Rogue Star (1969), Alexei Panshin's Masque World (1969) as an incidental whimsy, Frank Herbert's Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970), Diana Wynne Jones's Dogsbody (1975), and If The Stars are Gods (fixup 1977) by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund. A sentient and radiation-immune virus in James White's Final Diagnosis (1997) has a long-term goal of colonizing suns which will effectively become intelligent beings. Sf also offers living Black Holes (which see), or at least intelligences intimately associated with black holes, as in Eater (2000) by Gregory Benford.

Living planets have become relatively rare, although visiting spacemen offend one in Ray Bradbury's "Here There Be Tygers" (in New Tales of Space and Time, coll 1951, ed Raymond J Healy), but planets whose whole ecospheres are single individuals, often imbued with consciousness, are not uncommon (see Gaia). The planetary spirits in the Cosmic Trilogy (1938-1945) by C S Lewis are somewhat rarefied, as are the curious world-consciousnesses featured in Theodore Sturgeon's "Case and the Dreamer" (January 1973 Galaxy) and Neal Barrett's Stress Pattern (1974), but more mundane life-systems which comprise single vast organisms are featured in such stories as Murray Leinster's "The Lonely Planet" (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder), Doris Piserchia's Earthchild (1977), M A Foster's Waves (1980), Brian M Stableford's "Wildland" (in Arrows of Eros, coll 1989, ed Alex Stewart) and Isaac Asimov's Foundation's Edge (1982) and Nemesis (1989), and Jupiter as portrayed in Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream (2009). The most popular model for such integrated ecospheres is the forest, displayed in "Process" (December 1950 F&SF) by A E van Vogt, "The Forest of Zil" (December 1967 Amazing) by Kris Neville, and "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (in New Dimensions I, anth 1971, ed Robert Silverberg) by Ursula K Le Guin. The most impressive presentation of a truly Alien world-intelligence is Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans 1970), many features of which are prefigured in his Edem (1959; trans as Eden 1989). Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) takes a gently comic view of the concept, featuring both a living ocean called Chatogaster and a sentient planet which has gained interstellar Economic stature as the First Sirian Bank. A further living planet features in Susan Coon's Living World sequence opening with Rahne (1980); yet another, which in addition is loving and sings, appears in Walter Tevis's The Steps of the Sun (1983).

The popularization of James Lovelock's "Gaia hypothesis" has encouraged writers to pay more attention to highly integrated ecospheres, but the most radical repersonalization of the Earth is that in David Brin's Earth (1990), in which the planet undergoes metamorphosis into a gargantuan Upload-based AI – perhaps the most extravagant deus ex machina ever deployed. In Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light trilogy opening with Cosmonaut Keep (2000), slow-thinking Comet and Asteroid intelligences dominate interstellar mores as de-facto gods who are able to smite planetary offenders with vast meteor impacts. [BS/DRL]

see also: Biology; Hive Minds; World Ships.

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