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the worlds of Jupiter in science fiction
by Steven Hampton
(with apologies to Jack Vance)
It's over 300 times more massive than our Earth and 1400 times bigger, and it's larger than
everything else in the Solar system put together, except for the Sun. Jupiter truly is the king of
planets. It's so big that its orbital cycle makes old Sol wobble, even though it's five times further
away from the system centre than our little world. For such a monster, Jupiter moves very fast - a
day on this big planet lasts only 10 hours, yet it has no surface that we know of. This is a giant
ball of hot gases and liquid hydrogen, with vivid swirling clouds boiling across its face, driven by
tremendously violent storms. Long before space probes like Pioneer and Voyager took the first decent
pictures, how did science fiction view this awesome world and its extended family of moons?
The status of most 19th century fiction about Jupiter has long since lapsed into that of easily ridiculed fantasy, consigned by its distinct lack of grounding in scientific fact to the genre's landfill of lost worlds, and impossible futures. Clute and Nicholls' The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes the now thoroughly ludicrous example of - "John Jacob Astor's A Journey In Other Worlds (1894), in which [Jupiter] is a 'prehistoric' version of Earth, replete with dinosaurs." British writer, Stephen Baxter, paid affectionate homage to this sort of material in 'A Journey To The King Planet' (1990), which has a space liner styled after Verne's Nautilus on a trip far away from Earth.
The last hundred years has seen astronomy progressing forward by proverbial leaps and bounds into big science leagues. Galileo may have found the main quartet of Jovian moons, but another dozen have been discovered in the 20th century. And yet, even after modern stargazing revealed Jupiter was utterly inhospitable to life 'as we know it', science fictional dreams persisted with tales set on an Earth-like Jove, and these were still being published right into wartime. Pulp magazines gave us many spacer hero adventures like Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Skeleton Men Of Jupiter' (a John Carter story from the 1940s), and even Isaac Asimov's 'Not Final' (1941) clung to a belief in the viability of conventional aliens inhabiting the gassy globe.
It wasn't until the early 1950s that writers began to tackle the subject of Jupiter with even a hint of solemnity, by basing their stories on known facts instead of wild fantasy. 'Bridge' (1952) by James Blish describes the failure of a mammoth engineering project inside Jupiter's atmosphere. However, the title proves to be slightly misleading, for the construction was being grown, and was described as being: "more like a travelling crane - an extremely heavy duty overhead rail line". But, at least, Blish was trying something very different to most previous Jupiter stories. Arthur C. Clarke's novella 'Jupiter Five' (1953) features one of the genre's most amusingly self-reverential moments (before Iain M. Banks gave us The State Of The Art). Clarke describes a futuristic trip to a Jovian moon, where a space journalist interrupts the scientific team to explain that he's touring the local satellites, in order to compare Chesley Bonestell's classic paintings of Jupiter - as if seen from the surfaces of its various moons - with the actual scenes. Although Bonestell famously got it wrong when he painted mountainous lunar landscapes before the Apollo programme showed us the Moon is relatively flat, it would be interesting to know how accurate his Jovian series really are.
Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson's The Ganymede Takeover (1967) is a fairly typical action scenario, as is the late Poul Anderson's pretty straightforward expansionist adventure, The Snows Of Ganymede (1958, part of the author's 'Psychotechnic League' series), but Jupiter Project (1975) by Gregory Benford is happily more substantial. This novel explores the social pressures on a small crew of scientists studying the Jovian system from an orbiting lab. Despite the potential for new discoveries, Benford faces the stubbornly nagging question of whether space and exobiological research will ever have any relevance to the people back on Earth, routinely expected to fund such ventures. Benford also co-wrote 'Anvil of Jove' (1976) with Gordon Eklund (collected in If The Stars Are Gods). This story about an investigation into mysterious alien signals detected in the Jupiter system is very intriguing, though said ET evidence is found to originate from near Saturn.
An important alternative to terraforming planets to better suit human colonists is the idea of modifying humans to survive on alien planets - without changing the environment. Blish was one of the first to tackle this theme in The Seedling Stars (1956). This book of four individual stories includes 'Seeding Program', which concerns the genetic engineering of people for a range of biological adaptations, including survival around gas giants. This echoes Clifford D. Simak's earlier, 'Desertion' (1944), which had suggested that humans would need radical organic alteration to survive on the big planet's surface - but that was back when many still thought it might have landscapes to walk on! 'Call Me Joe' (1957) by Poul Anderson is a furtherance of this most difficult of SF themes. Can artificially created beings ever be considered equal to their makers? Such questions date all the way back to Frankenstein, and are still awaiting answers.
By far the most important and extensive works involving Jupiter and its moons, to date, are the four 'Odyssey' books by Clarke, and two SF films - one by Stanley Kubrick (co-written by Clarke), and the more humanist sequel, by Peter Hyams, which so cleverly adapts Clarke's novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (1982).
The first novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), differs from Kubrick's film in a number of ways - the most important of which, as relevant to this article, is that the Discovery spacecraft carrying its crew beyond Earth travels past Jupiter and continues on to Saturn for its encounter with destiny. However, it's curious to note that, in writing the sequel novel, Clarke opted to follow Kubrick's classic film (perhaps in recognition that the screen narrative would be better known than his) by focusing on Jupiter as the distant rendezvous point where further expeditions from Earth investigated the mysteries of the monolith, instead of Saturn. 2010: Odyssey Two also has a more inspired use for the incomparable Jupiter than any previous SF story (Clarke himself was inspired to write by results from Voyager's 1979 Jupiter flyby), as the author references a popular theory that Jove is actually a failed star - by blowing it up, and turning the gas giant into a small sun.
With the Solar system lit up by a binary star, after the cosmic drama of 2010, the stage is set for two more book sequels - 2061: Odyssey Three (1988), which preps moons in the Jovian system for new life to thrive, and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997), which resurrects astronaut Frank Poole - who was killed off in the original movie. The closure of this last novel in Clarke's sweeping opus boasts one of the finest open-endings in modern SF - as the small star, Lucifer, which was once Jupiter, suddenly dies out.
If the biological adaptation at genetic levels of Pantropy proved too unnerving for some, then perhaps cybernetic alteration of humans would be a preferable way of exploring other worlds. A cyborg pioneer discovers weird alien life forms in the atmosphere of Jupiter in Clarke's 'A Meeting With Medusa' (1971). Although one of the story's scientists argues animal life within the giant planet is impossible because there's no free oxygen, the one-man exploratory mission finds very large creatures that resemble jellyfish, and which may communicate via radio signals. Although not wholly an original piece of fiction, this was more evocative and far better composed than anything preceding it with regard to speculations on Jovian life.
Thirty years later, we have Jupiter by Ben Bova, which revisits the concepts that Clarke's story sketched out, at full novel length. Again, there's a multitude of life within the dense Jovian skies and murky ocean depths, and Bova guides readers through an unusual first contact scenario.
[See also: Wheelers by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen - Ed.]
In September 1999, American researchers published results of a computer model into the tidal effects of Jupiter's immense gravity on possible sub-surface oceans on Europa. If current theories are correct, there could well be life beneath the icy crust of this frozen moon. Both Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two book, and Hyams' film 2010, support the hypothesis (as does the discovery of tiny eco-spheres around 'black smoker' volcanic vents on Earth's ocean floor), though it should be noted that "the presence of chlorophyll where none had been detected before" (as mentioned in 2010) is attributed to the cosmic intervention of forces behind the unknowable monoliths, not chance - so the development of life anywhere on cold Europa in Clarke's Odyssey milieu is strictly unnatural - being dependent on thawing caused by Jupiter's implosion into a star.
Other recent genre novels about the highly intriguing Jovian moons include Lunar Justice (1991) by Charles L. Harness, which examines the legal implications of alien life on Europa with an amusingly histrionic regard, and Cold As Ice (1992) by Charles Sheffield, which I have not read.
As the biggest Jovian moon (indeed, the largest satellite in the Solar system, and bigger than planet Mercury) Ganymede has been a popular destination for genre writers since WW2. E.E. Smith went there, so did Leigh Brackett - in 'Dancing Girl of Ganymede' (1950). The same year's 'Farmer In The Sky' by Robert A. Heinlein put a human colony on the Jovian moon, but we had to wait a while for Blish to arrive with more Pantropy gene-modified folks in 'A Time To Survive' (1956). Robert Silverberg's intriguing Invaders From Earth (1958) was the final confirmation that mankind had conquered the child-like awe usually awarded a new world, and dragged the sleaze factor into space opera.
Perhaps the only SF author to successfully attempt a truly Clarkean cycle about humanity's origins and conquest of the Solar system was James P. Hogan. His underrated 'Minervan Experiment' series includes The Gentle Giants Of Ganymede (1978), which was a fulfilling sequel to Inherit The Stars, and briskly skims through the generic call sheets of another cinematic space odyssey.
Germany's Operation Ganymed (1977), a bleak little film written and directed by Rainer Erler, seems to bear down on issues raised by Benford's Jupiter Project, as it details the fate of an interplanetary mission. A few surviving astronauts of the catastrophic flight of the title endure a mind shattering return to Earth from the Jovian moon, only to find that people are oblivious to their homecoming, and uncaring about the discovery of micro-organisms on Ganymede. Outland (1981), a US film by Peter Hyams made shortly before 2010, posits a mining colony on Jupiter's highly volcanic moon, Io, with a gritty set design that distinguished it from the typically antiseptic cleanliness of most SF space cinema. However, the plot has almost zero SF value, being little more than a western thriller akin to High Noon.
With NASA's Voyager probe revealing that Jupiter has its own ring system (though obviously nothing like the grandeur of Saturn's rings), and Galileo getting close-up images, new discoveries about the Jovian moons are eagerly anticipated - especially by advocates of the proposed 'Icepick' mission to dig under the surface of Europa. What will science fiction make of any startling new discoveries?
tZ 2001: A Space Odyssey - unofficial magazine about the classic SF movie
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