Worldbuilding a Naked Jungle…in Space

I’ve been doing some brainstorming and worldbuilding lately for a story in my far-future science-fiction setting that is basically “The Naked Jungle” in space. Based on the 1937 short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson, “The Naked Jungle” was a 1954 film starring Charlton Heston as Leiningen, a brusque and brooding planter who carved out a coffee empire in the Amazon jungle with his bare hands, and Eleanor Parker as Joanna, his beautiful and charming mail-order bride fresh from New Orleans, chronicling their struggle against the marabunta (an attack of army ants) and with each other. I’ve always really liked the film.

Anyway, it occurs to me that the basic ideas lend themselves well to a space-opera setting, including my own. There could easily be a whole planet that’s predominately rainforest, an outbreak of insectoid life-forms every so often that consumes its surface, lonely men, mail-order brides, plantations, and natives deputized as workers.

The Planet

For the planet itself I’m thinking the jungle planet might be a cold one, almost more like a temperate rainforest, the average temperature around freezing. The rotational period might be longer than Earth’s, perhaps a bit over 7 Earth days long (maybe drawn out by a large moon a la Earth). That ensures more extreme temperature swings between day and night. More extreme also might be the reasons; possibly the planet has a high obliquity, about 40 degrees or so. The planet orbits an orange dwarf sun, so its year is shorter than Earth’s; I’m thinking maybe 20 local days long, or 140 Earth days. The vast majority of the world will be covered by rainforest, with no real oceans, just large brackish seas and large freshwater lakes strewn throughout the planet; the topography is rather shallow.

The Atmosphere

A really interesting part will be the local atmosphere. Its pressure I’m thinking will be similar to Earth’s, at 95% of Earth sea level, but its composition will be quite different; 63% oxygen, 32% argon, and 5% nitrogen (Earth’s is 21% oxygen, 1% argon, and 78% nitrogen). Perhaps the nitrogen cycle was much more vigorous on this world, sucking out most of the nitrogen from the air; the crust is greatly enriched with potassium, meaning dozens of times more argon leeches out from the decay of radioactive isotopes of potassium. The extra oxygen can be accounted for by assuming a more vigorous biosphere; Earth once reached 30% oxygen, so 63% isn’t that far-fetched.

These oxygen levels are at 0.6 bar or so of partial pressure, near the upper limit for a human to breathe without suffering from oxygen toxicity over the long haul; genetic engineering sophisticated enough to enhance this upper limit likely exists in my setting, but it’s entirely possible it’s not a standard modification, unlike enhanced beauty and intellect. The nitrogen levels don’t affect humans significantly, which brings us to the argon.

Argon is twice as narcotic as nitrogen, but at a concentration 0f 0.3 bar it’s harmless; the primary difference for humans is that argon is denser than nitrogen, so the timbre of voices will be deeper in this planet’s atmosphere. Argon also breaks down under electricity much easier than nitrogen does, meaning this world will have much more frequent lightning than Earth does (it’ll be the same color as on Earth: purplish-blue). Every thunderhead will be ablaze with lightning flashes. If Earth suddenly acquired such an atmosphere there would probably be a global firestorm in short order, but presumably the indigenous life on this planet is more fire-resistant.

The idea is that the atmosphere is breathable, close enough to Earth to be Earth-like, yet also alien. The much higher oxygen content supports much larger insectoid life forms, which are important to the story.

The Antagonist

I’m thinking that the marabunta element in my story would come from the awakening of a dormant species of eusocial insectoids from deep under the ground, an outbreak that occurs on geological timescales and consumes the whole planet. The Leiningen-like character would stick around after the others leave in terror and attempt to defend his plantation from the swarm, including with the use of antimatter weaponry.

The Romance

The Joanna-like character would be something of an audience surrogate, having the setup explained to her, and also a source of intrigue, being in tension with her husband. Their contract in this setting is for a trial marriage, where there’s a period to see if it’ll work or not; at first, though their physical intimacy is amazing, they can hardly stand each other’s personalities, but in the crucible of adversity the ice king and the ice queen melt.

The Plantations

The native workers aren’t really indigenous, but rather the descendants of castaways from some decades or even centuries before the planters arrived; think less Native Americans and more Pitcairn Islanders. The exact reason for their exile is vague to say the least.

The planters themselves will be more like ranchers, raising not cocoa but rather an indigenous creature that subsists off the soil, the extremely deep (compared to Earth) and rich topsoil that pervades the planet; it’s similar to earthworms in lifestyle, and perhaps caterpillars in form, but they’re 6 inches wide and 6 feet long. Oh, and they don’t just subsist off the soil; a crucial part of their diet is blood, much like the vampire bat. Usually this is extracted from native animals, but it’s not unheard of for them to attack humans and drain every red blood cell out of their body.

The ranchers take the risk because these animals produce a unique and extremely valuable kind of silk used to make some of the finest ladies’ dresses in the cosmos, much like the silkworm. I’m thinking like the silkworm this fabric will be harvested from cocoons these creatures make, with facilitate the vampire caterpillars’ transformation into butterflies.

Ordinarily people in this universe prefer to raise plants and animals on space habitats and leave planets wild, but there are unknown factors in the planet that make the vampire worms only able to exist there; extracting even the soil together with the worms to a space habitat doesn’t work. So denuding the landscape it is for the human colonists. Until Gaia (or the local equivalent) gets even…

Like “The Naked Jungle” the planters are a small circle; I’m thinking there might just be 5 or so on the whole planet. Keep in mind this is over a thousand years in the future, so automation means very little human labor is actually required for agriculture anymore. The planters developed the world with a business plan and a lot of new technology and investment capital; the castaways are deputized as workers providing the labor input, but even they only number at most a few hundred, probably more like a few dozen.

I’m not sure when I’ll end up actually writing this thing, but it’s a good setup for a story I think, and in any event it’s been enjoyable brainstorming the worldbuilding behind it.

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