Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Goldilocks Planet

I recently read two science fiction novels, written some 50 years apart, with similar premises. One was underwhelming, the other was much better.

At the heart of these two novels was a paradox that's probably endemic to science fiction: the fact that our planet is balanced between precarious conditions that would make it unsuitable for human life. The size of our moon, the thickness of the ozone, the distance of our planet from the sun, the rate of its spin ... the list goes on. Scientists (like Michio Kaku) say our planet inhabits a Goldilocks zone. And yet, the imagination wants to go out into space and find "new worlds and strange civilizations" (to quote an old favorite, though I didn't quite get it right, I think). Given the odds, will we ever find another planet that humans can live on? Could some hypothetical future civilization fare any better?

Most "sci-fi opera" novels (and films) just ignore this problem. Luke Skywalker can breathe the air on any number of planets. So can Edgar Rice Burroughs' hero, John Carter. But the two novels I read recently are more in the "hard sf" camp, taking the "science" part a lot more seriously.

Both novels share the premise that a remarkably earth-like planet has been discovered. A team has been sent to take a closer look. Both planets prove to be too earth-like, too livable for coincidence. And so the major puzzle at the heart of each book is ... how? What's really going on here?

The first one I read was Ben Bova's New Earth, published in 2013. In this novel, humans cannot travel faster than light, and so the humans who arrive at the paradisaical New Earth cannot easily leave or get help from old fashioned earth. Their technology fails them, thanks to the inference of a native species, and they spend the novel trying to find out who these aliens are and why they're messing with the crew.

The second one I read was Mark Clifton's Eight Keys to Eden, published in 1960. Here, humans have mastered FTL travel, mostly because of a group of super-scientists who exist and operate above the law. A team of settlers is sent to "Ceti II," nicknamed "Eden," and find it very easy to thrive--almost too easy. Until, that is, their technology fails them and a super-scientist-in-training is sent in to help them. The hero here gets trapped with the other settlers and has to solve the puzzle with very limited clues, to finally arrive at a way to release himself from the planet--and other things, as well.

By far the more exciting and mind-bending was the older one, by Mark Clifton. Bova's novel was slow-paced and turned on a conflict of mistrust, with a minimum of tension about whether that mistrust was misplaced. Clifton's novel left the reader wondering (until the last minute) both about the alien species and the puzzle that was keeping the humans imprisoned on the planet.

In the end, neither novel solved the riddle, of course. They both concluded (or at least implied) that a planet safe for human life will be too good to be true. But one did this in the interests of encouraging humanity to trust and unity (Bova) and the other in the interests of imagining a higher destiny than space exploration--another level of evolution, so to speak.

Well, that's it. Thanks for reading. Weigh in below if you have any ideas ... I'd love to hear it.

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