Hell is Another Planet

Venus as it might have been.  Published by Macdonald & Co 1968.

Venus as it might have been. Published by Macdonald & Co 1968.

The surface of the planet Venus is just about as inhospitable as it’s possible to imagine a planet to be.  In a previous webpost – Clouded Thinking – I talked about the images of that world as it might have been in the science fiction of the 1960s and before.

Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison produced an excellent valediction to the traditional idea of an exotic Venus in their 1968 collection Farewell, Fantastic Venus!  And as recently as 2015 we had Old Venus, a “retro” anthology, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, of science fiction in the style of the 1950s and 1960s before space probes revealed the true nature of the planet.  The discovery of a world of a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere, sulphuric acid rain and a surface temperature of over 450 degrees Celsius changed all that.

Possibly the first story to feature Venus as it is now known to be was Larry Niven’s Becalmed in Hell of 1965, and since then science fiction writers have often used the decidedly unpleasant conditions of our sister planet to good effect.  Ben Bova’s 2000 novel Venus shows the exploration of a planet where the intense heat and volcanic activity provide the expected obstacles to a manned mission.  Though, even then, you never know where indigenous life-forms might turn up.

However, Aldiss and Harrison included in their anthology Poul Anderson’s novella The Big Rain which, written back in 1955, seems quite prescient regarding the conditions on Venus.  In a desert environment of incessant storms of thick carbon dioxide near the boiling point of water, where clouds of sulphurous yellow hurtle across the sky, colonists live in underground cities while vast machines on the surface seek to transform the atmosphere into Earth normal conditions.  More recently, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312, Venus is terraformed by blocking the Sun’s light and crashing Saturn’s moon Dione onto the planet in order to cool it down.

All of which raises the question of whether humans might eventually live on the surface of Venus.  The great advantage is that the planet’s surface gravity is roughly the same as Earth’s, though having a “day” of 243 Earth days, which is actually longer than a Venusian “year”, is a bit of a drawback.  Even so, it is mainly atmospheric changes which would be required to produce a habitable world.

Paul Birch considered this in Terraforming Venus Quickly (JBIS, April 1991).  He suggested that a sunshade to cool the planet, causing carbon dioxide to precipitate as seas, along with a soletta to provide a 24-hour day-and-night cycle, could result in effective terraforming in around 200 years.  He extended this in How to Spin a Planet (JBIS, August 1993) to consider how high velocity mass streams around the planet’s equator, powered by light sails in solar orbit, could transfer momentum and energy to achieve an equivalent to Earth’s rotation period within a timescale of around 30 years.

This is planetary engineering on the grand scale, but the feasibility of terraforming Venus in the long term has been considered realistic by many writers on the subject.  Saul Adelman in Can Venus be Transformed into an Earthlike Planet? (JBIS, January 1982) thought it could be done, with collisions of large asteroids into Venus starting the process, though he concluded that such transformations could only be carried out by a civilization which already had the technology to enable extensive interstellar exploration.  And others, such as Martyn Fogg in The Terraforming of Venus (JBIS, December 1987), have all seen it as possible once the energy requirements can be met.

It might yet happen – Hell may one day be made habitable for the human race.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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