Moonstruck

If I wrote Space-based science fiction set in some distant part of our galaxy, or even in a different galaxy altogether, I could have free rein to create planets, moons and asteroids as I wished and call them whatever I wanted. Rashly, I stuck to our own Solar System, partly because I am fascinated by it and partly because I can’t bring myself to be too irrational. We are not going to disappear down wormholes into other areas of Space, all of which are too distant for serious contemplation. It takes four years for light to travel to us from our nearest star (other than our sun) and we’ll never go as fast as light without developing a severe headache.

So I am stuck with what we have, which is eight planets (nine if you count Pluto but nobody does any more). The inner four, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, are rocky planets. Beyond them lies the asteroid belt, which could have turned into a rocky planet, but never quite made it, although the largest asteroid, Ceres, made a valiant attempt. Then there are the giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus (pronounce as you will) and Neptune, which are all great big balls of gas.

The distance to the nearest star is about 25 trillion miles, which is hard to grasp, so it’s a lot easier to say it’s 4 light years away. It’s almost as bad trying to visualise distances within the Solar System. School charts show the planets in a row, neatly spaced, but they’re not. Travelling out from the sun, the distance between planets increases exponentially. Neptune is really a humongously long way away. Voyager 2 left Earth in 1977, reached Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981 and Neptune in 1989. And the planets are not conveniently lined up. They are each on their own orbit around the sun. Earth takes one year to complete its orbit. Neptune takes 165. No one is ever going to take a day trip planet-hopping.

Being gas giants, the outer planets would be rather difficult to land on anyway. Fortunately, for science fiction at least, they have moons. Our Earth is not unique in having a moon. One moon, which at least is one more than Venus or Mercury, but is pretty measly in the general state of play through the Solar System. Even Mars has two. Jupiter has 80, Saturn 83 (150 if you count moonlets), Uranus has 24, Neptune 14. More are being discovered all the time, ranging from pathetic misshapen lumps of rock and ice to more promising spheres, some bigger than Mercury and not much smaller than Mars.

Not all have yet been named, but many have. There is an international body responsible these days. Wouldn’t you like to work for the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature? How busy are they kept, I wonder, and how seriously do they take their work? They’re a bit more inclusive these days, but in the past, moons were mostly given European classical names. Jupiter’s moons were named after the Graeco-Roman god’s lovers (i.e. rape victims), like Europa, Callisto or Ganymede. Saturn’s were named after Greek Giants and Titans. The moons of Uranus are named, unexpectedly, after characters created by William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope (don’t ask me why), like Titania and Umbriel and Miranda. Neptune predictably gets watery gods and nymphs. It seems rather tragic that all we could come up with for our own moon was Moon.

The naming of the moons is a sore point for me as a writer of science fiction. I’d rename them if I could, but I am stuck with what has been decided. Jupiter’s Ganymede, the largest of all the moons, is okay. In my books it hosts the principal settlements on the brink of the Outer Circles and the name is distinctive enough to be memorable.

Out there in the darkness beyond, the blindingly obvious best bet for serious settlement is the second largest moon in the System, Saturn’s Titan, which has a distinct atmosphere and even evidence of liquid surface water, so I really need to make use of it in my fiction. Colonisers would never ignore it. But I wanted to focus primarily on something far more distant, one of the moons of Neptune. In fact the only moon of Neptune that really matters, all the others being tiddlers in comparison. Neptune’s largest moon is a very long way away, so ideal for a lengthy voyage of self-discovery (in Inside Out). It is stubbornly perverse in that it orbits in the wrong direction, and it is the coldest object in the Solar System, which reflects my fictional setting as a form of Hell – not fire and brimstone (Venus would be a better match for that) but Dante’s lowest circle of Hell, where Satan is entombed in ice.

Unfortunately, the moon has already been named Triton, so I am stuck with it. Not that I object, as such, because I like the name. It has a sinister feel. But in the last volume of my Salvage trilogy (work in progress at the moment), I also have scenes on Saturn’s Titan. There’s really nowhere else to put them. As every writer knows, you should always give your characters unique names so the readers can’t confuse them, despite the fact that in real life any gathering of people will include some sharing the same name. It would be much easier if I could have moons called Aardvark and Xerox, but Triton and Titan? Why did astronomers have to give two moons such similar names? It really doesn’t help, so I must rely on the goodwill of my readers.

INSIDE OUT
MAKING WAVES

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