Three Tips For Creating a Brand New Alien Planet from Scratch

With Across The Universe, Beth Revis brought brand new life to the idea of a generation ship sailing through space past living memory. She also gave a new spin to all of young-adult science fiction's dystopian obsessions. But now, the third book in the trilogy, Shades of Earth, is out today — and she faces her biggest challenge: creating a brand new alien planet. Elder and Amy are coming to their new home.

Here, in an exclusive article for io9, Revis explains just why creating a new planet was so hard — and shares three strategies that helped her to cope.

When I first came up with the idea of Across the Universe, my New York Times bestselling debut, I didn't think about the consequences of writing a SF trilogy set aboard a generational spaceship.

Specifically, I neglected to consider just how difficult it would be to write the third and final book, where the characters actually get off the spaceship and set foot on an entirely new planet.

Three Tips For Creating a Brand New Alien Planet from ScratchS

When I started writing Shades of Earth last year, I realized just how vast the task I'd set before myself was. One thing I've been adamant about from the inception of the novels was that my characters really were going to a different world. I was not going to pull a Planet of the Apes. But in doing so, I had to develop a whole new world from scratch.

In writing Shades of Earth (and re-writing it twice!), I did come up with some methods that worked well.

1) Rely on a handful of key specifics

This is actually a philosophy that I went into when I started the first novel and my setting was a spaceship and not a new planet. A long time ago — so long ago that I don't remember where I first heard this advice — someone said that the best way to write SF was to give one telling detail rather than a page of description. The example used in the advice was to say that the door "zipped open automatically" — which shows that the door is electronic and modern rather than a traditional door you pull open. In those three words you do more than a page of detail could, and you bring in the world's differences seamlessly.

This writing advice became my lifeline while writing the details of Centauri-Earth, the planet my characters arrive at. Rather than cramming every possible detail I could onto each page, I wrote a few specifics as they directly relate to the characters. The advantage to this is that the reader then takes the small, specific details are included, and extrapolate them far further than any writer could.

The reader's imagination is always more powerful than the text.

2) Use the weird, wonderful things that already exist on Earth

While I might be relying on a few specific details to carry the alien-ness of my world into the reader's imagination, I definitely needed to have a springboard to create these details.

Three Tips For Creating a Brand New Alien Planet from ScratchS

For this, I picked the details about Earth that I find fascinating, and expanded them. For example, I've always found bioluminescence to be an amazing bit of science. Images of bioluminescent plankton in water, such as at Vieques, Puerto Rico had a huge influence on my writing. Taking knowledge of how bioluminescence works and adding that to a world where I got to invent my own rules (and add new elements to the periodic table) created a whole new plot line in Shades of Earth.

Another real-life place that helped me to develop a whole new world is the island of Socotra. This small island in the Indian Ocean is a part of the Republic of Yemen, and is probably the strangest place I never knew existed. Socotra is extraordinarily isolated and has developed plants that exist nowhere else on Earth... and look as if they'd be far better suited on an alien planet. It definitely aided my own writing to have visual references to such weirdly wonderful plants, such as the Dragon Blood Tree, which appears to be growing upside down, with exposed branches twisting up in an oddly spherical almost grass-like mound of leaves.

Of course, I was able to take some less exotic plants and animals on Earth and make them alien. For example, I've always found Spanish moss to be creepy — it's pretty, sure, but it reminds me far too much of scary fireside stories told on camping trips. So I threw in a plant like Spanish moss along with close-together trees that I based on banyans. Even though I was using plants that are common on Earth, I gave them a few twists that made them different enough — such as pollen that messes with the human nervous system — that the small descriptive details readers were already familiar with became much more alien.

3) Macro and micro views of the new world

When I was a teacher, I had a whole lesson about how hard it is for the human mind to understand things outside of its comfort zone. My lesson was focused on the Holocaust and the fact that it's almost impossible to truly understand a number such as six million deaths. I had a 20-foot scroll with six million dots on it, and every kid in the class helped unwind the scroll and tried to appreciate just how big a number six million is. We followed that lesson with a reading of Elie Wiesel's masterpiece Night — because while my students might see six million, it was just as hard for them to understand the full tragedy of the Holocaust without learning the detailed experience of one specific person. It's a conundrum of the human mind — we have difficulty understanding any extreme, big or small.

Three Tips For Creating a Brand New Alien Planet from Scratch

So when I started writing a novel that had to introduce an entirely different world to the readers, I knew I had to find ways to show both the vast, huge differences, as well as the smaller ones. Fortunately, I also had a spaceship at my disposal, so I have my characters see the world from above. As Amy says:

My eyes drink up the image of the planet — and my stomach sinks with the knowledge that this is a coastline I've never seen before. I could spin a globe of Earth around and still be able to recognize the way Spain and Portugal reach into the Atlantic, the curve of the Gulf of Mexico, the pointy end of India. But this continent — it dips and curves in ways I don't recognize, swirls into an unknown sea, creating peninsulas in shapes I do not know, scattering out islands in a pattern I cannot connect.

And it's not until I see this that I realize: this world may one day become our home, but it will never be the home I left behind.

The idea of seeing a planet from above is especially awe-inducing for me — and it's the inspiration for the campaign to send a copy of my book into space. My publisher, Razorbill/Penguin, is arranging to use weather balloons to send the book and a camera far enough into space to see the curvature of the world, something I cannot wait to share with readers.

But just as important as the big details are the smaller ones — and so I paired this image with much smaller details, all the way down to an examination of DNA of the alien creatures.

In the end, that's the most important thing for the reader to come away with: an idea that this whole world — from the ground to the atmosphere and everything in-between — really and truly is alien.