Wednesday, 30 April 2014

When Worlds Collide

So in a previous blog I railed against 'weird for the sake of weird' so this time I'm going to go in the opposite direction and ask; what do you do when reality itself turns out to be weirder than we imagined?

The realization that the sun was just one average star amongst many seems to have led to an assumption that the planets orbiting were also average and mundane, and that the nice neat arrangement with rocky bodies  close to the sun and gas giants in the outer was typical of the way in which solar systems form. Models were developed that described the mechanics of planetary formation and it wasn't just scientists who bought into this nice orderly image; writers of imaginative fiction were happy to go along with it.

Even where worlds were superficially exotic there was often that assumption of nice neat system mechanics overall; gas giants and rocky bodies knew their place and even if a world only saw night every thousand years (Nightfall) it was still relatively 'normal' in terms of the solar system it inhabited. The fundamental problem with all of this was it worked off a sample size of one; our own little solar system was the only one we could see. The best efforts of astronomers to find other solar systems met with no success; until 1992. Pulsar PSR 1257+12 was about the last place any one would have expected to find a planet since it was the remnant of a star that had long since vanished in a supernova. As it turned out this first discovery set something of a trend; what was a trickle of discoveries turned into a flood as we entered the 21st century and the Kepler space telescope added almost 3000 candidates and hundreds of confirmed new planets.

What became increasingly clear was that the nice neat ideas of planetary formation went out of the window almost overnight. Planets were found in all manner of bizarre orbits; worlds larger than Jupiter orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury does to ours. Some planets in fact orbiting so close that they are being slowly vaporized by their parent star; there's even a planet doing a fair impression of Tatooine out there.

So where does the dividing line lie between our bizarre universe and 'weird for the sake of weird'? Well the answer is that if you are adding something exotic and strange to give your story texture then that;s good; if you are adding it simply because you want to stuff in every cool idea that passes through your head or just to look 'cutting edge' then that's probably just WFTSOFW...

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