Friday, May 1, 2009
The skies of fantasy worlds
One of the quickest ways to signal to a reader that we’re not in Kansas any more is to show how the other world’s sky differs from that of Earth. This can be very effective when done well. There are almost too many examples of this to describe, and it occurs in every type of speculative fiction.
The sun of Darkover, in the series by Marion Zimmer Bradley, is red (one of the titles is The Bloody Sun). This is a relatively normal color for a sun, though - astronomically speaking. Writers could probably get away with these kinds of variations in the sun’s color, but anything wildly out of the ordinary might take some explanation or seem contrived. I know I’d buy a white or blue-ish sun, but not a purple or black one.
Increasing the number of suns is also an option, though then I’d expect the world to show the effects of having a binary or trinary solar system (and then we might be getting more into SF than fantasy).
The number (and colors) of moons can vary; for instance, the world of DragonLance has three moons – one red, one white and one black. Jack Vance’s Tschai has two moons, one pink and one blue, and there are probably fantasy worlds out there with no moons at all. Although now I’m curious about how many moons a world can have before the suspension of disbelief is strained.
The shape of the moon can also be changed. When the characters in Brian Lumley’s The House of Doors find themselves trapped in the titular house, one of the first things they notice when they look up is an octagonal moon. On the other hand, the House of Doors functions like a holodeck, so its producing this kind of shape is quite conceivable, since the moon is just a projection. In real life (or real SF), heavenly bodies aren't likely to be so unusually shaped. Still, that was a vivid detail.
And finally, in China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag, the moon has its own satellites. That was a neat touch.
Most fantasy worlds have their own constellations, though in DragonLance these were the representations of gods, and IIRC they disappeared from the sky when the gods descended to earth. I’d like to see a world where the constellations could change unpredictably, so that lost travelers couldn’t count on being able to tell their way with the North Star.
In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, the Red Star is distinct from the rest of the stellar bodies. That could be done with other stars as well, for other reasons – a star appeared to mark a significant event in the Bible, for instance. Maybe different cities have different stars hanging low over them to indicate their positions to traders.
Comets and aurorae borealis, asteroid belts close enough to see, rings around the planet. Almost any phenomenon can be adapted to enhance a world, although some seem vivid enough in and of themselves, such as glory or moon dogs. I’m loving these names. I didn’t know astronomers were so creative. :)
Have fun painting the skies of your world.