Assuming there are any planets out there that are capable of supporting human life – which there probably aren’t – it’s unlikely they’re going to be like the endless array of Star Trek and Stargate planets, which all look like the west coast of the US and Canada. Or all those Dr. Who planets that look like a strip mine in Wessex.
I mean think of all the variations you can have in planets: heavier gravity, lighter gravity, bigger oceans, smaller oceans, no moons, one moon, two moons, five moons, a different colored sun, the amounts of inert gasses in the air, different lengths of day and night, and a jillion other things that could be different. Ever since I started reading Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of worlds that are only marginally habitable, or otherwise bizarre.
One of the questions that’s always interested me about this is what kind of psychological effect it would have on people, both the colonists and their kids. This is a subject that seems largely overlooked in the genre. Given that we evolved for a very specific set of environments, it didn’t seem to me like you could just turn that off and accept a planet that looked like a Yes album cover, no matter how cool it might look.
I invented the planet “Gagarin.” It’s pretty similar to earth, but it’s got two moons. One is about the size of Mars, the other is about the size of our own moon. As a result the tides on Gagarin are insane – a minimum of six hundred feet – twice a day. Think about that: Mountain ranges become island chains, then go back to being mountain ranges twice a day. There’s even a tide in the air, with the pressure gradually going up and down several PSI in time with the tides. And off course there’s the local exotic stuff: plants that have hair instead of leaves, weird animals, that kind of stuff, not to mention a thing in the sky that is way huger than humans are used to expecting in the sky.
Stick with me here…
For colonists on Gagarin, I dropped rural American Southerners. There were also a good number of Russians and Chinese – also rural – but the overwhelming majority were Southerners. Why? Because Southerners were low-caste enough that no one on earth would really miss them or care if they died. Such is the way of colonists through much of history: “Let’s ship off the undesirables.” This was a one-way trip for the 750,000 people I dumped there.
Well, once they got to Gagarin there was an epidemic of suicides. It wasn’t that the place was uninhabitable. As long as you stayed well away from the waterline, it was actually more hospitable than earth. It was just that it was strange. There’s a limit to how much people can adapt to, and how quickly. Food that doesn’t taste right, air that doesn’t smell right, not bad mind you, just different. The sun is a little too small in the sky. The stars are different at night. There’s that bigass moon in the sky, feeling like it’s going to fall on you at any moment. Add to this that they had to leave family and friends and most of their stuff behind, and were living in tents, and, well, it’s a recipe for mass psychosis, right?
Which brings me to the point of the story:
My “Gagariners” were so homesick, so starved for anything from their old lives, that they eventually chose the rebel flag as the symbol for their planetary government.
Well, duh, what else would you really expect a bunch of homesick rednecks to do, right?
This was not an uncontentious choice. Several people expressed extreme displeasure over it, but most people didn’t. In fact, even most of the Black people – who made up like a third of the colony – were on board with it, too.
“Why the hell would you do that?” you ask. Well, it wasn’t to be offensive. The very clear point of the story is to show how people can be sooooooooo far from home, both physically and emotionally, that they’ll cleave to anything familiar. There are hundreds of examples of this: the terrified kid on the first day of preschool who won’t let go of the little scrap of paper his mom gave him, the terrified Jew in a death camp desperately holding on to a star of David, Buzz Aldrin holding a communion service on the moon (really!), you name it. It’s human nature to grab on to what’s familiar and hold on for all it’s worth, until you get used to your new surroundings.
Those embers from the fire are important. They help us hold our heads together. They keep the monsters away. Of course they’re almost always arbitrary, and their intrinsic meaning isn’t the important thing. The important thing is familiarity. The more unfamiliar your situation, the more anything familiar becomes desperately important, be that thing good or ill, well, if it’s a good symbol you chose, so much the better. If it’s a bad one, well, any port in a storm, right?
So that’s why I did it: Not to be offensive, but to show how people react under stress, or at least one way they can. I was pretty proud of the story. I thought it was well written, and it went in an interesting direction, and dealt with stuff seldom seen in Science Fiction. Not the best thing I ever wrote, but pretty good.
I’ve written a lot of stories, and I’ve deliberately pushed some boundaries with some of them. There are places I will not go, but to me SF is all about asking questions and dealing with the answers whether you like ’em or not. I didn’t consider this story to be controversial all. It’s very clear what’s going on, and why it happens. It’s also made very clear that this is not an objectively desirable choice, but it worked.
Of all the stories I’ve ever written, this is the only one to ever get me hate mail. I mean really vicious stuff. All of it, curiously, from white guys. I’m not saying “Hey, Black people are cool with the rebel flag.” I doubt they would be. I don’t really know or care what the color of my very few readers are. I did find it interesting that only white guys complained, though.
I don’t have a solid hypothesis as to why. I suspect that it’s because an issue can be so contentious that some people can’t look at it objectively. Even if the story clearly, objectively says one thing, they see the forbidden bit, and immediately take it to mean exactly the opposite.
I was pretty shocked by this. I’m not even remotely racist, and the thought of being labeled one really upset me. I thought about changing the story, but anything else I substituted for that damn flag lacked the punch to make it work. I thought about just pulling the story, but it’s a neat idea. Then I thought of what Harlan Ellison said (Paraphrasing) ‘when the story is published, it isn’t yours anymore. It belongs to the audience, and you can’t say ‘oh, I didn’t mean that’ or ‘just let me change this one bit’.’ I agree with that. I did it, it’s out there, and I’ll just take the consequences. Is that wise? Hell, I don’t know. Obviously I don’t know anything. I was just trying to tell an interesting story. Fortunately, I suppose, no one ever reads my books.
It is odd, however, that a person’s reactions can become so rigidly programmed that they can’t accept contradictory information. I’m not saying I’m better than these people. I’m sure I’ve got some symbol or thought that triggers me the same way. I just find it odd, is all, that out of all the offensive and weird crap I’ve written, this comparatively trivial thing was what set people off.
But anyway, that’s the story of how I tried to write a story about really funky tides and ended up getting labeled a racist.
If you’d like to read the story and decide for yourself, and maybe discuss it with me, the story is called “The Cetian Sky”, and it’s included in this book here https://www.amazon.com/Undead-War-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B018Y1LRFS/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 (Which, just to bring things full circle, contains a story that Larry Niven liked. Not this particular one, though)