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

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 moon

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.

The stars

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.

Everything else

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.


A. Shelton said...

You've just given me an interesting idea for the moons for one of my fantasy worlds: binary moons. Thanks. :)

Marian said...

You're welcome! This was a pleasure to write. The appearance of the sky is something most people take for granted, so it's really fun to give a world a moving swarm of stars or a moon that's triple the size of ours (like that scene from A.I. where the mecha-hunters catch up to Joe).

ralfast said...

One way to have a colorful sky would be to make world a moon of another planet! Two of the gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn) in our solar neighborhood have moons large enough to rival Earth.

So you could have multiple moons( each on with their own interesting geography such as mile high geysers plumes or volcanoes) crossing the sky, glittering bands of rings dominating the sky, etc.

One of the reasons why our moon, Luna, has such an impact on mythology was how it affected the ties and what people thought they could see on the lunar surface.

A fiery or ice moon could be connected to elemental magics, regular meteor showers when an outer band of the rings intersects the planet's orbit may deliver rare "star metal" (again, this also happens when meteors impact the Earth, although it is mostly iron, nickel and rare iridium).

Pantheons, festivals, travel, all of these things would be very different in a sky full of moons. People might even believe that the Gods live somewhere on the primary, ever watchful of their mortal charges (or be a prison for an ancient evil).

A lot of possibilities.

Marian said...

One way to have a colorful sky would be to make world a moon of another planet!Damn, that's creative. I also love the idea of a moon on fire.

ralfast said...

"make the world"

Well you have the volcanoes of Io, the rings of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. I borrowed the idea from Robotech to be honest and 2010.

rosemerry said...

There was an article in either Scientific American or Discover. I don't have the issue in front of me at the moment. But it talked about how the color of the plants on other would be different according to the type of star that that world is circling. It even had a quick guide like black plants = x type of star. I'll see if I can find that article soon.

Marian said...

Very cool - now I have an idea for plants in fantasy as well!

Barbara Martin said...

Thank you, Marian, for this interesting post as I never gave it a thought when writing my fantasy worlds.

Marian said...

You're welcome, Barbara, and neither did I until now. I've focused so much on the biology and cultures in my worlds that it didn't occur to me to play around with the sky.

rosemerry said...

I found the article. "The Color of Plants on Other Worlds" by Nancy Y. King. Scientific American April 2008.

Here is a link to the article:

Marian said...

Thank you, rosemerry! I'll read through that before I write something about plants.