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Geography and Science Fiction: the Creation of Realistic Alternative Worlds

Submitted by on January 2, 2012 – 7:11 pm 22 Comments |  
Map of Imaginary Planet, Earth 2(Note to readers: As GeoCurrents is technically on vacation, it seems like a good time to explore an issue that falls outside of the blog’s basic field of concern. For the next week, posts will focus on speculative fiction, culminating with the free release of my own science fiction novel, Terranova: The Black Petaltail, on this website. Regular GeoCurrents posts on matters of geography and history will begin again in the second week of January.)

Fantasy can be an entryway into serious geographical and historical thought. While preparing several GeoCurrents posts, I have come across deeply informed discussions of obscure historical topics in game-players’ discussion boards. Map-making is also taken seriously by authors and fans of science fiction and fantasy literature. Those who base their stories or games on alternative worlds are especially drawn to cartographic depiction and historical timelines. Such efforts sometimes go well beyond the mere limning of lands and waters, showing such deeper structures as tectonic plates.

Several websites offer tools and advice for building one’s own imaginary planet. The Fractal Worldmap Generator, for example, allows the easy construction of realistic fantasy cartography in several projections; all one has to do is specify what percentages of a sphere should be covered with water and ice. The Elfwood site, advertised as “The World’s Largest SciFi and Fantasy Community,” provides detailed geographical advice for would-be world-makers, even providing elementary instruction in climatology. The Wikipedia article on “world-building” also offers basic lessons, informing readers, for example, that “a forest will typically form in locations with higher levels of rainfall. Where the prevailing winds cross a mountainous rise, the forest will appear on the windward side where moisture tends to be deposited.”

Map of Imaginary Planet with Environmental ZonesWhether such remedial education is adequate to the task is another matter. To truly construct a realistic Earth-like world requires the kind of knowledge provided by a college-level course in physical geography; not a few enthusiasts have created handsome worlds that embody glaring geographical contradictions. Consider, for example, the maps posted here. In Earth 2, the brown areas, presumably deserts or semi-deserts, are mostly situated in such necessarily humid areas as the equatorial zone, the upper-mid latitudes on the west side of the largest continent, and the subtropics on the east side of the same landmass. The second map (“Environmental Zones of the Three Continents”), depicting a different imaginary world, does a better job. Note, however, the equatorial desert in the west, as well as the woodlands to its north at around twenty degrees, an area that ought to be desert.* For such patterns to exist, the basic parameters of physics would have to be changed, putting us not merely in an alternative world but in an alternative universe.

Such quibbles may seem pedantic—they certainly do to my own children. Perhaps it would be better to stress how far the genre has advanced over the past several decades. In earlier years, most Earth-like planets in science fiction were not just geographically incorrect, but positively simpleminded. Human- (or humanoid-) inhabited globes were routinely imagined not as richly variegated worlds but as simple, uniform places. These kinds of planets represent not alter-worlds so much as samples of our own terrestrial sphere, the geographical equivalents of one-dimensional human characters embodying particular traits. Such failings have been strikingly pronounced in the two largest science fiction franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars. Both series are richly imaginative and consistently thought-provoking, and I have enjoyed them for decades. In terms of basic geography, however, Star Trek and Star Wars leave much to be desired.

Star Trek, Gamma Trianguli VI In the original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, entire planets were portrayed as individual neighborhoods. In almost every episode, the show’s protagonists could stroll to all significant places on a given world once they had beamed down from their spaceship. Such a narrow scope, admittedly, was all but dictated by the series’ restricted budget and special-effects limitations. Yet the much more lavishly produced second Star Trek series, The Next Generation, was little different. Indeed, its world-building capabilities sometimes seem to have declined. Compare, for example, the planet Gamma Trianguli VI from “The Apple” (1968) with the world that lent its name to the episode entitled “Angel One” (1988). Although the view of Gamma Trianguli VI from the deck of the starship Enterprise gets the cloud patterns wrong (no mid-latitude spiral bands, no thunderheads of an inter-tropical convergence zone), the planet’s topography looks reasonably Earth-like. Angel One, on the other hand, appears more like Neptune: one glance tells you that this is not a place where a mammal from Earth would be able to breathe. Yet when the crew beams down, they encounter nothing alien whatsoever—other than the fact that the women of Angel One physically dominate the men.

Star Trek, Angel One In the Star Wars franchise, planets tend to be far more fully realized. Rather then being reducible to intimate locales that can be effectively covered on foot, they form expansive spaces that demand mechanized transport. Yet few are depicted as having Earth-like complexity and variation. Instead, they tend to form single environments: if some are completely desertic, others are wholly forested. The films also feature grassland planets, swamp planets, ocean planets, and even a completely urbanized planet packed with a trillion inhabitants. Some worlds are described as entirely temperate, others (impossibly) as completely tropical.** Most of the planets of Star Wars, in other words, are not worlds at all, but rather expanded stand-ins for particular ecotypes on Earth.

Star Wars, Hoth and Tauntauns Some of the environmentally restricted Star Wars planets are more realistically imagined than others. An ice-covered, perennially frozen sphere, for example, remains within the realm of plausibility. In our universe, such a planet would not be capable of supporting macroscopic life of the kind found on Earth. In the Star Wars galaxy, however, Hoth is fully ice-bound, yet supports massive mammalian species. What could such large herbivores as tauntauns possibly eat? Such niceties were ignored in the original film, but Star Wars “Expanded Universe” sources attempt to provide answers. Hoth, we are told, is replete with “under-ice caves containing large lichen fields … on which Tauntauns feed.” Interesting idea, but physically impossible; ice is not stable enough to support long-lasting, light-filled caves of the size necessary to support such ecosystems.

Some authors of SciFi and fantasy have elaborated complex geographical patterns, creating what seem to be fully realized alter-worlds. But complexity does not guarantee geographical accuracy, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*On Earth, deserts are found on the west sides of continents between around 18 and 30 degrees of latitude, and in continental interiors, especially where mountains block prevailing winds. (Note that Afro-Eurasia forms a single continent in this regard.) The exceptions that do exist are generally explainable by oceanic currents, which in turn can be deduced from the basic patterns of land and sea.

** “The tropics” is by definition a restricted latitudinal belt: the zone where the sun is directly overhead at noon once a year (twice at the Equator). A planet whose axis is tiled 90 degrees relative to its orbit around its sun would in this sense be entirely “tropical,” as all areas would experience a mid-day sun angle of 90 degrees. But it would by no means possess a uniformly “tropical” climate, as most areas would experience prolonged periods of the year with little or no sunlight. Even at the equator of such a planet, the sun would not rise above the horizon on the two solstices.


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  • A planet with an axial tilt of 90 degrees will in fact experience only one “day” per year, no matter what its rotational period is.  As this article explains, the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic Circle, and the equator all coincide.  Unless it is extremely close to its sun, it will be unsuited for life-as-we-know-it.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks for the additional information. Certainly such a planet would be difficult for our kind of life.  

    • Kyle

      That would be fun to visit! I always have had a fascination with cold latitude climates and would love to check out that alternate 90% tilted earth.

      What would the climate of Western Oregon here would be like?

  • There are equatorial deserts on Earth, notably the Somali and the Peruvian ones. Both are coastal but at least the Somali one (which extends well into Kenya and does so towards the interior) is clearly influenced by neighboring Sahara and Arabian deserts.

    Besides these two full fledged equatorial deserts, there is also a semi-desertic area in NE Brazil. Overall there is a good fraction of the equatorial zone that is desertic to semi-desertic, depending, it seems to me on altitude and influence of neighboring larger deserts in the case of Kenya-Somalia and on cold currents (the same ones that allow penguins in Galapagos islands, the only equatorial such population) in the case of Peru and Ecuador. I’m not sure why the NE Brazil arid area exists but it does and barely south of the Equator line.

    I’d say that each case has quite a bit of uniqueness in the factors that created them.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Good points — many thanks. I would have mentioned these exceptions, but that would have been too much detail. The Peruvian coastal desert (which is not quite equatorial) is explained by the fact that South America extends so far to the south that it causes a cold current to be deflected far to the north. The Somali/Kenya situations in part results from the fact that the Indian Ocean is in one sense “half” an ocean, as it does not extend north into the temperate latitudes. As a result, one gets a seasonal monsoon circulation rather than the usual pattern of trade winds in the north Indian Ocean. The Brazilian case is more difficult to explain. Glenn Trewartha’s book The Earth’s problem Climates is the best source that I know of on such matters. 

  • Andrew Zolnai

    somehow JC’s link go corrupted here it is again

    M you are correct, I was about to add the coincidence on W seaboards of deserts (Namibia, Atacama, W Oz and So Cal) chiefly due to cold ocean currents causing rain to fall offshore robbing landmasses of water.

    SL thanks for raising this fascinating topic, astrogeomorphology (repeat 100x chewing gum) is fascinating and would take too long to build entirely. Only Cameron had the luxury to spend a couple of years just building up a world (language and culture no less) for Avatar, tho I suppose his planet demands suspension of belief as well as rock formations  🙂  I mean no-one really expects us to believe any of it, do they?

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks for bringing up “suspension of disbelief,” which is crucial in most science fiction.  I will address this issue later. As far as deserts are concerned, the Namibian, Australian, and Baja California cases are not exceptions — as they are located exactly where subtropical deserts should be found — between 18 and 30 degrees on the west sides of continents. Currents play a role, but the major factor is the high pressure zones that result from descending air, which blocks low pressure systems. Air rises along the inter-tropical convergence zone, and then descends at about 30 degrees over oceans, casing persistent high pressure areas. 

      • Thx for the corrections, I didn’t mean those deserts were exceptions, and you evidently explained it far better (goes back 35 yrs for me, thx for the refresher ;-] ).

  • Thanks, Andrew.

    Let me recommend Mark Rosenfelder’s book The Planet Construction Kit; its home page is at .  It’s a compendium of advice for all the aspects of constructing a plausible world, definitely including climate issues.  The only exception is languages, which are addressed in the companion Language Construction Kit.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks — looks like a great site!

  • Ah, yes, and the super-conducting, unobtanium-filled, floating Hallelujah mountains of Avatar?

    I will have to check out the Language Construction Kit.  It always surprises me that alien languages have translations for such pleasantries as hello and thank you.  I would have thought the Klingons too brusque for all that.  My gosh, even in Georgian, every word for hello, thank you, cheers, and congratulations seems to be a wishing victory to the person one is addressing.

    • James: I am not sure I am following your point on Georgian, but stayed tuned: more on constructed languages (and quite possibly on Georgian) is coming soon!

      • It was probably hyperbole, but I remember being told in Kutaisi in the ’80s that gmarjoba, gaumarjos, and gmadlobt all were forms of a wish for victory.  Those three words are about 50% of my entire Karthvelian vocabulary, however, so I am probably passing on apocryphal information. Oh, and if they all wish victory, then that is what I figured a Klingon should speak like.

        • John Cowan

          Quite right, but Georgians are no more conscious of this normally than anglophones are that “Hi” is “How are you?”, “Goodbye” is “God be with you”, and “Farewell” is “Have a good trip”.

          • SirBedevere

            They are not, but notice the spread of meanings for those words in English and the single-mindedness, at least at some stage in the development of Georgian. Another interesting comparison would be the Congo basin language Nkundo, in which, as I recall, there are two basic greetings, a hello for the first time one meets someone–Owetswo (I was never taught how to spell it)–which literally means “are you awake” and another for subsequent meanings–Oleko–which means “are you well” or “are you there,” I have forgotten which.

    • The Klingon word for hello is literally ‘What do you want?’ and it is limited to use by a superior to an inferior.  There is no Klingon word for goodbye at all.

  • Pingback: Link: Geography and Science Fiction – the Creation of Realistic Alternative Worlds | Nassau Hedron()

  • rissa

    i dont like reading about the olden days

  • rissssy poo

    anyone single, and ready to mingle?!

    • Kkm_2013


  • barzai

    I realize I might be just a trifle late to the conversation, but allow me to respectfully observe that evaluating the world-building competence of science fiction using Star Trek or Star Wars is about the equivalent of trying to understand the Ice Age through the eponymous movie series.

    Star Trek and Star Wars aren’t SF: they’re Hollywood SF, which is to say, they are basically space opera.

    If you really wanted to take a serious look at world-building in SF, you should read some actual SF authors. Dr. Jerry Pournelle once wrote that, in their joint novel The Mote In God’s Eye. he and Larry Niven moved an entire planet for the sake of one line of dialogue (you should look it up, the story is too interesting to be reduced to a blog comment).

  • yavuz

    Long ago I was looking for such a web site, now I saw this site, and the dreams came true!
    I am very interested in building earth-like geographies and planets, as you do, and actually I created many geographies depending on various scenarios (as water-based, arid climates, the humidity etc.). So, I guess this is a kind of pursuing some sort of fantasy and a true passion! I don’t know why. I was also interested with sci-fi years ago, when I was university student but I am an academicien and more in the real world affairs. Most of the time, people looked as if I am strange when I talk about building earth-like new geographies. However, people usually do not even show interest to the real world geography. I did’t understand that either. I admire the geography, and the water-land interaction, etc. and admire the earth’s geographical shapes.
    So, I produces maps of mine, and even played kind of civilizations (of human, or other planet races) over the maps.
    But, by time I lost some interest, because I also thought maybe I was really weird. Now, I see there are people in the world as curious as I am to this issues.
    But, is there any earth-like geography building software or games, tools, etc?
    Still I enjoy my own worlds, on the basis of geographical facts, air-water & biological dynamics, and tectonic movements. Years ago, I created my own “Atlantis”, which I tried to be realistic, as much as possible. It takes place over Atlantic ocean, between the Iber peninsula and Newfoundland. I can post it (the general map) to anyone who is truly interested

  • RachelInCalifornia

    The number and location of Hadley cells, which give rise to rainy tropics and arid zones at 20-30 degrees north and south, may depend on where the continents are, and also on the climate. In Pangaea, the north and south arid zones merged, and the humid tropics disappeared. If people are moving the continents around, the very movements of the air and currents of the sea would also be changed.