5 science fiction books featuring floating habitats

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Venus tourist poster, created for NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech (Creative strategy: Dan Goods, David Delgado; Illustrator: Jessie Kawata)

Venus is so reckless. It presents itself as a brother world, a world that at first glance would seem very similar to Earth, but… on closer inspection, it is totally hostile to life as we know it. Surface conditions would be extremely difficult for life on earth, with the toxic atmosphere, crushing pressures and blast furnace temperatures.

It’s on the surface, however. Just fifty kilometers above the surface, there is a region with earth pressures and temperatures, a veritable Garden of Eden where an unprotected human would not almost immediately be cremated but would exhale painfully (within minutes) for lack of oxygen and the prevalence of toxic gases.

Nonetheless, visionaries like Geoffrey Landis have pointed to the possibility of high floating cities in the atmosphere, cities that would be bubbles of habitability in an otherwise hostile environment. Thereby, the charming poster created for Venus tourism.

Venus isn’t the only world where Landis’ balloon cities might come in handy. It is a curious fact about the solar system that three of the four giant worlds have, through the combination of high mass and low density, gravities comparable to Earth. Jupiter is the exception. Maybe a table would be helpful.

Planet Surface gravity (m / s / s) Surface gravity (Earth = 1) Escape speed (km / s) Leakage velocity (Earth = 1)
Venus 8.9 0.9 10.4 0.9
Earth 9.8 1.0 11.2 1
Jupiter 24.9 2.5 60.5 5.4
Saturn 10.4 1.1 36 3.2
Uranus 8.9 0.9 21.3 1.9
Neptune 11.2 1.1 23.6 2.1

Life in the clouds of a gas giant would be even more difficult than life in the clouds of Venus. Venus offers at least a solid surface from which heavy elements can be recovered. Giant gas and ice colonies would have to make do with the lighter elements that can be filtered from the atmosphere or, if necessary, import materials from outside. In addition, gas giants usually force a choice between Earth-like pressures and tolerable temperatures.

It’s hard to imagine why someone would be determined or desperate enough to try to live, or even, that’s good enough for science fiction—

Floating worlds by Cecilia Holland (1976)

Thanks to the enlightened anarchists of Earth, the Mother World is a toxic hellish landscape where life is confined in domes. Worlds like the Moon, Mars, Venus, and asteroids, however, are charged with real governments and inflict a higher standard of living on their citizens. The outer planets – Saturn and Uranus – are considered almost as barbaric as Earth, home to floating cities populated by mutant Styths that no human has to worry about. After all, it’s not as if human history has ever figured nomadic warriors crushing overconfident empires one after the other …

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Venus of dreams by Pamela Sargent (1986)

Unified under the nomarchies of the Mukhtars, the Earth has sufficiently recovered from the calamities of the 21stst century to consider expanding into space. Most of the sought-after real estate is already controlled by the very advanced Habbers. The Mukhtars therefore cast their eyes on Venus, which, with great effort and considerable time, could turn into a new Earth. Before that happens, however, hard-working terraformers like Iris Angharad must live and work in the islands, floating above the inhospitable surface.

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The Clouds of Saturn by Michael McCollum (1991)

Forced to flee Earth as the bright sun transformed Earth from a garden planet to a scorching hell world, humanity found refuge in Saturn’s atmosphere. Once established, the city-states of this giant world reverted to mankind’s popular pastime, internal warfare. The obvious solution? Bring every city-state on the planet under the firm leadership of a unitary world government, whether politicians wish to join or not and regardless of the cost in human lives.

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Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey Landis (2010)

Space colonization provided the masses with new homelands in which to work endlessly and made a handful of oligarchs as wealthy as Croesus. Carlos Fernando Nordwald-Gruenbaum is one of those oligarchs, a twelve-year-old who owns almost everything worth having in the clouds of Venus. However, almost everything is not everything. So, the boy invites the brilliant researcher Dr. Leah Hamakawa to Venus. Dr. Hamakawa is a key part of his daring vision of the Venus that could be. His assistant infatuated David, not so much, except that the accompanying minion provides a perspective of the great and mighty lack.

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The house of the Styx by Derek Künsken (2020)

The clouds of Venus promised the Quebec separatists independence, endless trials and the ever-present threat of a horrible demise. Even if the colony home to a comparative handful of Venusians, barely enough to qualify for a village, there are enough people to endure deep disagreements. Thus, the D’Aquillon family, faced with the intolerable medical restrictions imposed by the colony, choose to live in their own floating habitat, Causapscal-des-Profondeurs. The family escaped unreasonable laws… but there are costs.

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There’s no doubt that even now you’re grabbing your keyboards, annoyed that my list of five books omitted works that you think are better examples. Feel free to fill in the comments with suggestions.

Originally published in September 2020.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific and lasting literary critic Nominated for the Darwin Award James Davis Nicoll is of “dubious notability”. His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young people read old SFF (where he is assisted by the editor Karen lofstrom and webperson Adrienne L. Travis). He’s a four-time finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer and is surprisingly flammable.

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