Actually we can do even more. We can imagine whole ecologies. And again, we can go from minimalist to extreme. Arzor from Norton’s Beast Master is suspiciously like the American southwest, but Dune is a desert with an ecology quite a bit developed beyond any desert on Earth.
My first science fiction novel Jandrax [see note at the bottom of the page] is set on a deeply frozen planet, with only the equatorial region ice free. The only area I developed was a plain roughly a thousand miles across, centering on a massive freshwater lake. I stranded a starship with a load of fundamentalist passengers and a relatively unreligious crew, and watched the fireworks as they found two quite different ways of coping with the local ecology.
The area in question never sees rain, but during the cold season, snow and sleet falls, then melts during the (slightly) warm season. Viewed locally, this results in a dead season of snow, a brief season of wild plant growth during which massive migratory herds move through, and then a long season of dry, warm aftermath until the churned and destroyed vegetation is covered with new snow, where it and its seeds will wait for the next melt.
Viewed from the starship stranded in orbit, there is a moving line of green, eating up a mass of white, and followed by a growing gray, brown temporary desert.
I won’t tell you what happens to the people. That would be a spoiler to a book I’m hoping you will still read. Instead, let’s look at the alien creatures, starting with the herbivores.
Herbies are burrow bodied, tapir headed, fleet and harmless. Humpox don’t get much description, but don’t need it, with that name. Trihorns are as deadly as they sound. All are mammals, as are the carnivorous longnecks and krats. There are also huge carnivorous toothed birds called leers. They ended up on the cover.
These are the deliberately realistic creatures, all mammals and birds, devised in an era when warm blooded dinosaurs had not yet reached public awareness. In another part of the book, there is an interlude on an island which may be a hallucination or perhaps an encounter with the local version of God. Here the rules of realism don’t fully apply, and we find winged people who would never stand up to the laws of aerodynamics, and an insufferably cute, seal-faced, plump flying mammal called a dilwildi.
The example of Jandrax goes straight to the notion of purpose. Weird critters for the sake of weird critters is entirely valid. I love a weird critter novel. But Jandrax was my first full fledged novel, designed to show human interaction in a harsh, ice-age environment. It contains an entire religion, devised for the purpose of providing conflict. The ecology of the world was central to the story, and it was developed, but the individual alien creatures just needed to look right in an ice age environment. Nortonian minimalism is at work here.
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I was in high school when I first read Richard McKenna ’s novella Hunter, Come Home. It was a deeply moving, human story of manhood, honor, and love. It also had a second dimension, the description of an entire sentient ecosystem in peril and fighting back.
Here is a brief summary. Mordinmen were descendants of a lost Earth colony which had fought a generations long war against the dinosaur-like creatures which inhabited their planet. Manhood had become symbolized by the killing of a dino, but now the dinos were scarce and poor families, like Roy Craig’s, could no longer afford a hunt.
Mordinmen had now claimed another planet and were setting about to destroy its native ecosystem, in order to rebuild it in the image of their home planet. Red dots (successful hunters) were running the show, assisted by blankies like Roy who was working toward the time he could make his kill on the new planet. Hired as specialists, the Belconti biologists were providing the virus-like Thanasis used to destroy the native life.
When the story begins, the fight to transform this new planet has been going on for decades, and it is failing. Now the Mordinmen, against warnings by the Belacaonti, are about to unleash newer, harsher, more dangerous plague on the planet.
That’s about as far as I can summarize without a spoiler alert. Roy Craig wants more than anything to be a full fledged member of his machismo society, but his blanky status leaves him marginalized and frustrated. At the same time, he is drawn to the relatively gentle society of the Belaconti with whom is is working, symbolized for him by the woman Midori Blake.
Other than the dinosaur like creatures imported by the Mordinmen, there is only one other alien species — the entire planet they are all on. The native life of the planet is totally interconnected, essentially a one-world-tree (shades of Gaia).
There is a three way contrast in Hunter, Come Home. The Mordinmen, from a macho society built on killing are placed in contrast to the Belaconti, scientists who understand and treasure the ecosystem they are trying to destroy, and they in turn are contrasted to the interlocked, semi-sentient native life of the planet. Roy and Midori are each caught in conflicting loyalties as the planned apocalypse moves forward.
This is one of those cases where world building, culture building, and alien species building work together seamlessly. more tomorrow
[You can find Jandrax in used book stores. It is also available on this website, in an annotated form. Eventually it will be placed in Backfile, but I’ve been busy. I you want to read it here and now, your best bet for navigation is to begin by clicking the March 2016 archive and find Jandrax 2, then read and slide up, skipping every other post — archives alternates posts from the two blogs on this site. It is a bit of a pain. You can get Jandrax most days through Amazon’s cadre of used book stores. If you want the annotated version, in which I explain the various foibles of a young author, I plan to put it into an easily accessed form in Backfile, as soon after Westercon as I can find the time.]