Imagine a world nearly 11 times bigger than Earth. A planet covered from pole to pole with gaudy bands of clouds racing at super-hurricane speeds.
That’s the planet Jupiter, the setting for my latest novel, “Leviathans of Jupiter.” Like my earlier science-fiction novels, I’ve tried to make the story’s setting as accurate as astronomical knowledge allows.
But “Leviathans of Jupiter” goes beyond today’s knowledge. It’s about a truly alien life form living in a world completely different from our own.
Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, a gas giant world composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, the two lightest (and most abundant) elements in the universe. Under normal conditions here on Earth, hydrogen and helium are gases.
But Jupiter is nothing like Earth.
All that we can see of Jupiter is the tops of the clouds that cover the planet from pole to pole in colorful swirling bands. Despite being so big, Jupiter spins on its axis so fast that its day is a mere 10 hours long.
Beneath those churning clouds the tremendous gravity of that giant world squeezes the gases so much that they become a liquid ocean. Deeper still, the gravitational pressure condenses the planet’s hydrogen into a solid, metallic core.
Jupiter is heated from within. Measurements of the temperature of the planet’s cloud tops show that they are warmer than they would be if their only source of heat was sunlight. Deep within Jupiter’s core, temperatures must reach thousands of degrees. It is that heat which warms the planet.
Picture that enormous ocean, 10 times wider than Earth and some 5,000 miles deep. It has never seen sunlight, nor has it ever felt the rough confining contours of land. Its waves have never crashed against a craggy shore, never thundered upon a sloping beach, for there is no land anywhere across Jupiter’s enormous girth: not even an island or a reef. The ocean’s billows sweep across the face of the deeps without hindrance, eternally.
Heated from below by the planet’s seething core, swirled into frenzy by Jupiter’s hyperkinetic spin rate, ferocious currents race through this endless sea, liquid jet streams howling madly, long powerful wave trains surging uninterrupted all the way around the world, circling the globe over and over again. Gigantic storms rack the ocean, too, typhoons bigger than whole planets, hurricanes that have roared their fury for century after century.
Up to this point, everything I’ve said about Jupiter is based on solid astronomical knowledge. This is where my novel takes us beyond what is known, and into the world of imagination. I’ve populated that planet-spanning ocean with enormous whale-like creatures, the size of mountains. The leviathans.
The leviathans are truly alien creatures, living in a world that is utterly unlike our own. But in my novel, inquisitive scientists from Earth want to study these titanic creatures. A handful of the scientists believe the leviathans might be intelligent.
How do you communicate with a truly alien creature? How do you determine if it is intelligent?
The leviathans cruise through their ocean at depths that make it impossible to send robot vessels to study them. Human controllers aboard a space station orbiting Jupiter would quickly lose contact with an automated probe sent so deep into that ocean.
So the scientists send a team of human volunteers in a submersible vessel designed to withstand the pressure and get close enough to the leviathans to try to communicate with them.
The leviathans have no common ground with the humans. They live in an oceanic world and have no inkling that their ocean is part of a planet that is part of a solar system that is part of a universe of stars and galaxies.
To the leviathans, the humans’ submersible is a small, strange and pretty stupid creature. The elders among the leviathans decide to ignore this stranger that has intruded into their realm.
But there is one member of the leviathans who is curious about the stranger.
Of course, the humans have their own problems. Human passions and conflicts won’t disappear when we go exploring other worlds.
“Leviathans of Jupiter” is science-fiction today, but it’s based solidly on known science. Someday it might become history.
“Leviathans of Jupiter” is Bova’s 124th book. His website address is www.benbova.com.