April 7, 2010

Science Fiction and The Exponential Discovery of Exoplanets

How does the exponential discovery of exoplanets impact the landscape of Science Fiction? Surely we are at a stage in history were new doors are being opened up by the accelerating rate of exoplanet discoveries. I wonder how it affects the human psyche. How does the growing knowledge of new worlds impact the human imagination?
Will a new breed of science fiction writers and film-makers create richer planetary settings with more elaborate world-building efforts?
Curiously, I decided to do some research and experiment on it. I started to compile a list of fictional planetary settings (check out the list at freebase). This is an ongoing experiment and anyone can participate by adding their own favorite fictional planet within freebase. If you notice that the planet setting in your favorite sci-fi novel is not listed, then by all means please add it in by signing up into freebase and contributing your knowledge.
Looking at the numbers so far, we currently have 443 known exoplanets compared to 200 fictional planets. Perhaps I am concluding prematurely, but it struck me how our human imagination is lagging behind scientific findings in terms of coming up with new worlds. As you can see from the chart, the rate of discovery of new planets is soaring at an exponential rate. What about new planets in science fiction? In literature?
I wonder whether there will come a time when some kind of growth spurt will occur in the number of new fictional worlds in sci-fi. And whether the ever-expanding knowledge about exoplanets will have something to do with it.
The 443 discovered exoplanets span from 1992, while the list of fictional planets span all the way back further than that. So we may not know yet whether the same exponential curve will happen to the number of new planetary settings being created in science fiction.
And this being an ongoing research, there are still some gray areas in this experiment that we need to iron out in due time. For example, some computer games actually have storylines that are set on fictional planets. Some of these in-game planets turn out to have adaptations onto comic books like Halo, Mass Effect and Gears of War. Some other games have massive numbers of planets, such as the case with Eve-Online which have thousands of planets--yet only a few are mentioned in the EVE novels. So it's definitely an open issue how a planet within a game jumps into the scifi landscape.
I do not know how this experiment will turn out, but one thing i'm sure is that it is fun to be there as it unfolds.

"We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising."
~Carl Sagan