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Cytherean Dreams

Cytherean Dreams and Venusian Futures

Part One: Cytherean Dreams

Venus is one of the brightest objects in Earth’s night sky. Never far from the Sun, it appears as either a morning or evening star, visible brightly white just before dawn for part of its cycle and equally brightly just after dusk for the rest. While some ancient cultures assigned it two different names as a result of this behaviour, others recognised the same object, or associated it with two aspects of the same deity. In western culture, it has been identified with Venus - the goddess of love - for millennia, and presented in direct contrast to Mars - the ruddy planet named after the god of War.

With the development of optical telescopes, two important discoveries were made: Venus shows phases (like the Moon) confirming that it was a sphere in its own right and lies between us and the Sun; and Venus shows no surface features. This is in contrast to Mars, on which changes of surface colouration were frequently observed, and strongly suggested a thick cloud cover over the entire surface

Book cover of the anthology Farewell Fantastic Venus

Partly because of this, Venus has long attracted less attention than Mars and has been something of an overlooked planet, seen as a great unknown. Despite that, it has attracted attention from both scientists and science fiction writers. These populated Venus with a range of fantasies, most of which were brought down to earth with a bump when the Venera probes of the 1960s demonstrated that the worst fears of scientists regarding its surface conditions were, if anything, over-optimistic. 

The realisation led to the publication of an anthology of fact and fiction extracts called Farewell Fantastic Venus, edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, in 1968. In this, Aldiss advocated the readoption of the classical and largely forgotten adjective Cytherean for Venus, in parallel to the term Arean (as in areoform, areology as equivalents for terraform, geology etc) sometimes used for Mars. Cytherea or Aphrodite was the Greek equivalent of Venus, just as Ares was the Greek equivalent of Mars. 

The science and science fiction divides fairly neatly into the pre- and post-Venera eras. In this first of two parts, I’m going to focus on the pre-Venera representations of Venus - the Cytherean Dreams.

The Unknown Planet

The impenetrable cloud and apparent featurelessness of Venus had been noted as early as the late seventeenth century by Christian Huygens, and it remained a mystery well into the twentieth. Writing in The Astrophysical Journal in 1899, Princeton university astronomer Henry Norris Russell was able to make calculations of the extent of the Venusian atmosphere (all now known to be underestimates) but was still well short of any clear picture able to say little more than that “Venus’ surface temperature is probably higher than the Earth’s, and the correspondingly higher molecular velocities of gases, together with the smaller force of gravity, lead us to expect an atmosphere of small extent and density.” - a deeply misleading picture.

Writing in The Boys’ Book of Astronomy (1914), prominent amateur astronomer and astronomy writer Ellison Hawks was honest enough to say that “That Venus has an atmosphere is beyond doubt, but as to the possibilities of life on the planet, we have no clue” (pg 106). The absence of observable oxygen or water vapour in the Cytherean atmosphere was robustly demonstrated by observations in 1922 by Charles St John at the Mount Wilson Observatory, and writers thereafter had to either ignore this fact or come up with reasons why none of the world’s oxygen escaped to the upper atmosphere layers where measurements could be made.

Illustration accompanying Columbus of Space in Amazing Stories, drawn by Ray WardellNonetheless, in the mid 1920s, Venus’s surface conditions were still sufficiently unclear that Garett P Serviss was able to write A Columbus of Space (novel, Amazing Stories, 1926, text [1]) in which a group of explorers treat a trip to Venus much like a colonial exploration on Earth (complete with typically racist assumptions and language of the time). While there are nods to the science - commenting on the way sounds resonate in the thick atmosphere, and following the then-current theory that Venus was tidally locked. Despite this, much of the landscape in this story appears to be a fairly close analogue to Earth and presents no particular difficulty to the explorer. Always showing one face to the Sun - a theory proposed by observer Schiaparelli in the late nineteenth century - Serviss’s Venus has a cold night side inhabited by “primitive” cave dwellers and a warm day side, on which the explorers find beautiful women and an advanced civilisation. While it was widely suspected that Venus was not tidally locked by the 1930s, the true, very slow, rotation of Venus was not measured until radio observations were made 1961.

American author Edgar Rice Burroughs - better known for his Tarzan books and his tales of Barsoom (Mars) - explored Venus in a short series of novels beginning with Pirates of Venus (1934). In the tradition of his earlier writing, these are planetary romances, in which a human being - one Carson Napier - finds himself amidst near-human civilisations, rescues their princesses and enjoys a range of swash-buckling adventures. It’s interesting to note that by the time the first Venus (or Amtor) book was written, Burroughs felt the need to address the scientific implausibility of his premise, referencing the observations of Schiaparelli and well-known contemporary astronomer Sir James Jeans in the opening chapter of Pirates of Venus. Indeed, his protagonist initially planned to visit Mars instead since according to experts Venus “possesses no vegetation and no oxygen for higher forms of life to breathe.” [2].

Illustration for QRM - Interplanetary, from Astounding Magazine, drawn by William KollikerIn fact, to his surprise, he discovers a planet much like Earth, with breathable atmosphere, habitable surface and both extensive forests and oceans. To its inhabitants, shielded from the sky by constant cloud, no conception of the rest of the universe has ever been formed: their view of the world comprises the cold region of the pole, encircled by the temperate circle in which they live and an outer, unending lake of fire and lava that the protagonist, Napier, identifies as the intolerably-hot sun-facing equatorial latitudes. As with Serviss’s Columbus in Space, and other examples extending into the 1940s such as George O Smith’s Venus Equilateral stories (starting with “QRM - Interplanetary”, Astounding, 1942), Burroughs found enough ambiguity in scientific knowledge of Venus to accommodate his fantasy - albeit with a hand-waving acknowledgement that some scientists would be surprised.

A glimpse into Venus as the possible source of unknown dangers appears in an original radio drama called “The Green Thing” which was part of the anthology series 2000 Plus (MBS radio, 1950). This has little information about Venus itself, but describes the staff and patients of a mental hospital haunted by a creature - the titular “green thing” that appears in their dreams and claims to have originated on our sister planet.

More green things, in this case a race of reptilian aliens known as the Treen and their leader the Mekon, appeared in the influential comic adventure Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in 1950 (created by Frank Hampson for Eagle comic). Dan Dare’s Venus is portrayed as hosting a range of environments, just as Earth does - ranging from barren wastelands to rich farmland, with oceans and jungles in between, as well as an impassable “flame belt” straddling the equator (perhaps inspired by Burroughs’ hot equatorial zone of Strabol). This flame belt separated the Treen in the northern hemisphere from the human-like Therons who inhabited more comfortable environments in the south. Despite its variation, the surface of Venus was comfortably habitable for humans, and its atmosphere easily breathable - indeed its biology was close enough to Earth’s to provide food to starving humanity. Already by 1950 this was stretching the limits of plausibility, although it was still possible at this point to use Venus as a generic symbol of the mysterious unknown.

Film poster for Stranger from Venus (1954) - which has amusingly little to do with the actual plot.By contrast, the 1954 film Stranger from Venus (dir. Balaban) proposes a more benign contact. The titular stranger appears as an apparently normal human (apart from the inevitably stilted speech and mannerisms of movie aliens at the time), but one who lacks a wrist pulse. As we discover, he had to endure twelve days of acclimatisation/adaption to Earth atmosphere, travels in a spaceship driven by magnetic forces and wishes to speak to worldwide representatives. He explains that “Our interest is that of an elder brother in the solar family” and wishes to prevent Earth making the same mistake as those of the fifth planet who destroyed themselves to form the asteroid belt. We learn little about Venus itself, but by 1954 the evidence was already strong that no human-like creature capable of acclimatisation could exist. Nonetheless, we are again seeing Venus used to inspire a sense of the unknown and mysterious.

Primordial Swamps and Jungles

By the mid to late nineteenth century, thermodynamic arguments (the simple fact that Venus is closer to the Sun than Earth and so more irradiated), together with the detection of carbon dioxide in spectroscopy of Venus, were hinting that the world was a warm one with a dense atmosphere.

The then dominant theories for planet formation also suggested that the solar system’s planets might have formed from the edge of the solar system inwards, such that planets closer to the Sun were younger. And so, the same theories that gave us ancient, dying Mars also gave us a young, humid, primordial Venus, with surface conditions similar to Earth in the cretaceous period. This resulted in the wealth of Earth-dinosaur-on-Venus stories I discussed in an earlier blog article, including examples such as W E Johns’ Kings of Space, but also others which presented Venus as a swampy jungle world with a biosphere and ecology in its own right.

Another example here can be found in "Cosmic Express” by Jack Williamson, first published in Amazing Stories in 1930 (text). In this short story, two characters from the twenty-fifth century lament the decline of freedom and the natural environment on Earth:

"If only we lived on Venus! I was listening to a lecture on the television, last night. The speaker said that the Planet Venus is younger than the Earth, that it has not cooled so much. It has a thick, cloudy atmosphere, and low, rainy forests. There's simple, elemental life there—like Earth had before civilization ruined it."

"Yes, Kinsley, with his new infra-red ray telescope, that penetrates the cloud layers of the planet, proved that Venus rotates in about the same period as Earth; and it must be much like Earth was a million years ago."

Bribing the operator of a newly invented teleportation system, they do indeed make their way to Venus where

“All about rose a thick jungle, dark and gloomy—and very wet. Palm-like, the gigantic trees were, or fern-like, flinging clouds of feathery green foliage high against a somber sky of unbroken gloom.”

After trudging through the mud for hours and fleeing from monstrous roars in the night, they soon regret their decision to return to nature.

A distinct but still swampy-jungle image of Venus can be found in Ricardo’s Virus (William Tenn, 1953, in Planet Stories, text). Here the intelligent natives have been dubbed pterodactyls (or terries), and there are animals described as brontosaurs, but these form part of a prehistoric-analogue biosphere, rather than a strict replica of prehistoric Earth. Other creatures are described, as well as carnivorous plants, and an infectious virus that threatens all human immigrants.

The cloud-obscured disk of Venus from the television series Pathfinders to VenusThe prehistoric image of exo-dinosaurs continued to hold a powerful sway over representations of the planet, even as scientific understanding of the project grew harsher and the swampy jungles began to disappear from fiction. In the opening episode of the 1961 children’s science fiction television drama series Pathfinders to Venus, the juvenile characters discuss the planet’s thick cloud, carbon dioxide rich atmosphere and lack of observable oxygen, but the story nonetheless goes on to show a prehistoric Venus under the clouds, complete with breathable atmosphere, rich vegetation, carnivorous plants, dinosaurs and early hominids. Like many children’s dramas, the Pathfinders series had an educational remit, and demonstrates how much ambiguity remained in our knowledge even at this late date.

The same prehistoric imagery appears in adult science fiction of the time. Soviet-era Russian film Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms, 1962, dir. Klushantsev) for example shows humans needing suits and oxygen helmets to survive (except for brief exposures to the atmosphere) and portrays the surface as largely barren and desolate, although with extensive swathes of open water and occasional giant carnivorous plants. It nonetheless also features enormous dinosaurs which are very close analogues to prehistoric creatures on Earth [3].

Although the jungle world image remained in the popular imagination, it lacked scientific backing by the end of the nineteenth century and was somewhat superseded in most science fiction by two other, diametrically opposed, worldwide climates.

Water World

Another image of Venus through the mid twentieth century was as a water world, with oceans covering much of its surface area. In his book Present Day Astronomy (1930), science writer J W N Sullivan commented that “It seems perfectly possible … that life could exist on Venus…. There is some reason to suppose that Venus is entirely surrounded by water, so that any life that exists on the planet has probably assumed fish-like forms.”

This water world picture appears, for example, in the epic novel The Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930). Stapledon’s narrative follows the evolution of humanity through a number of distinct forms, starting from our current population on Earth and successively both evolving and devolving as it spreads through over worlds and ultimately out into the Universe. The Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Men sojourn on a watery Venus, terraforming the world and wiping out its native marine life.

Image for Cully from Amazing Stories, January 1963, showing the ocean world. Illustrated by SchellingJack Egan’s short story “Cully” (Amazing Stories, 1963, text, audiobook) is equally ruthless. It also envisages a watery Venus - in this case one dominated by “an undulating garden of blue-and-gold streamers”. This is a group of telepathic plantlike organisms which are hostile to humanity. The story focuses on an individual who is able to swim into their midst and destroy them, but only at enormous cost to himself. The story is interesting for the utter unconcern the characters show for the rights or viewpoints of the (evidently intelligent) native life, as opposed to those of the human settlers. 

C S Lewis’s Perelandra (novel, 1943, second in his Cosmic Trilogy) also adopted the water world trope. Lewis’s Venus was covered by an ocean of fresh water, and animal life existed on floating rafts of vegetation. Harking back to Burroughs' planetary romances, his Cytherean life includes a humanoid race of green-skinned people, including a beautiful queen. Like much of Lewis’s writing, the narrative here is rooted in his christian theology, with the narrative exploring the fall into sin that threatens the native peoples.

The water world image of Venus was so pervasive that it was often merely part of the background of a narrative. Harry Harrison’s short story “The Velvet Glove” (1956, text, audiobook) for example is about emancipated android robots, and the discrimination they face. However the protagonist character is a robot of the Venex class: an experimental model with waterproof, pressure-resistant bodies designed for a failed sub-ocean mining operation on Venus. Abandoned on Earth, the robot must struggle for survival and acceptance.

Even Isaac Asimov, always careful to write in line with contemporary scientific theory, sent his space ranger to the planet in Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (juvenile novel, 1954) in which he notes that

“the vegetation that had so thickly met the eye was neither grass nor shrubbery, but seaweed. The flat plain was no surface of soil and rock but water, the top of an ocean that surrounded and covered all of Venus.”

In his vision of the planet, the inhabitants live in underwater domed cities, although, within a handful of years, later editions and writings by Asimov were prefaced by a comment that the probe results meant he’d have written a very different story if he were writing it again.

Venusian Deserts

The extent of uncertainty regarding surface conditions on Venus can be seen in the fact that, contemporary with scientific descriptions of the planet as a water world, we find a diametrically proposed view: that of a desert planet. By the 1950s scientific measurements were reliably detecting high temperatures from the top of the atmosphere, and no evidence for water vapour in observations. While advocates of the water world theories suggested the surface was protected by the thick atmosphere, which might turn back much of the heat and trap the water below altitudes where measurements could be taken, advocates of the desert world saw an arid, windswept environment in which liquid water was a rare and precious commodity.

As the Cytherean atmospheric temperatures measured by astronomers became better known, the image of Venus in fiction changed from one of a water world to an image of a desert planet. Indeed, writing in 1951 in his book Life on Other Worlds the Astronomer Royal, Sir Harold Spencer Jones confidently asserted that

“We can draw a picture of Venus that is probably pretty near the truth, despite the fact that we have never seen her surface. The whole of the planet is desert. Intense gales blow perpetually over her surface and the yellow dust is carried high into her atmosphere. The surface is consequently steeped in a Stygian gloom. The heat is intense. There is no vegetation of any sort. Nor are there any great mountain ranges, for the dust and sand blown by the violent winds have denuded the mountains to the level of the plains. Venus, then, is a world where life is entirely out of the question.” (pg 170)

Science fiction took the imagery on board even if it chose to set aside the last point. A rather dark vision of life on the planet can be found in the short story “Venus Hate” by John McGreevey (Planet Stories, 1952, text). In this narrative, a human man is employed to maintain a “humidi-hut” and its water supply in the Venusian desert, which can only be crossed protected by plasti-shield and with water carried in thermiteens (thermally-insulated canteens). The character, Yancey, instead pursues his own goals of hunting wind-polished precious stones and possessing a buxum Venusian native woman. Given the abuse he inflicts, it’s hard to feel particularly sympathetic for his eventual fate in the hostile Desert Rouge environment McGreevey describes:

“A hot wind pressed its dusty fingers against their protective hoods and tugged with an eerie persuasiveness at their padded jackets. Through the murk an orange sun burned in the sand-strewn sky. Rocks pitted and pocked from centuries of relentless persecution stood stark sentinel on every side. This was Venus.” 

The desert representation of Venus in the illustration for Prospector's Special, from Galaxy Magazine, December 1959, illustrated by Dillon.By contrast, the protagonist in Robert Sheckley’s short story “Prospector’s Special” (Galaxy science fiction, 1959, text) is a far more sympathetic character. This prospector, Morrison, is also in search of precious minerals, and his mission starts well:

“The sandcar moved smoothly over the rolling dunes, its six fat wheels rising and falling like the ponderous rumps of tandem elephants. The hidden sun beat down from a dead-white sky, pouring heat into the canvas top, reflecting heat back from the parched sand.”

But Morrison is at the very end of his resources. In a world which possesses the ability to teleport inanimate objects, he could be supplied with water in the midst of the Scorpion Desert - but he has no money, offering credit is illegal and he would have to declare himself bankrupt to secure a rescue. Instead he chooses to go onwards, pursuing traces of a mother-lode through a desert in which sandwolves, flying scorpions and hunting black kites present a constant threat.

The debate between Swamp-Jungle-Venus and Desert-Venus was addressed directly in “Question of Comfort” by Les Collins (Amazing Science Fiction Stories, 1959, text, audiobook). Here a team try to develop an exhibit for Disney’s Tomorrowland theme park in which each planet of the solar system is demonstrated with a realistic portrayal of its environment. The lead designer finds he needs to argue his point as regards Venus:

There was general agreement on broad outlines. Trouble began over Venus.

"Of course," said one of the Minds, "we'll easily create a swampy environment—"

I burst out with quiet desperation: "May I comment?" The realists were churning. Right there, sides were being chosen. I let all know my side immediately. "Venus is hot, but it's desert heat. Continuous dust storms with fantastic winds—"

"People'd never go for that junk," interrupted the Mind. "Everyone knows Venus is swampy."

"Everyone whose reading tastes matured no further than Edgar Rice Burroughs!" 

In fact, both the desperation and the firmness with which the protagonist lays out his view is revealed later in the story, when we realise just why he needs the environment of Venus to be just right.

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

Perhaps inevitably, from the extremes of ocean and desert, some authors sought to find a middle ground… and ended up with mud. Lots of mud.

One example here can be found in the short story “Foundling on Venus” by John and Dorothy de Courcey, which appeared in Fantastic Universe in 1954 (text). Here we discover a Venus divided between colonies from four nation-states, with a squalid frontier town at the junction between them:

“From the arbitrary point where the four territories met, New Reno flung its sprawling, dirty carcass over the muddy soil and roared and hooted endlessly, laughed with the rough boisterousness of miners and spacemen, rang with the brittle, brassy laughter of women following a trade older than New Reno.”

The de Courceys’ Venus appears to be tidally locked, since there is mention of a Twilight Zone, and not as habitable as many earlier Venuses: “the dank, stinging, caustic air swallows up the lives of men” and “These are the fortunate dead. The rest are received into the sloppy breast of Venus where even a tombstone or marker is swallowed in a few, short weeks. And they die quickly on Venus, and often.”. The story itself is a slightly odd and saccharine story focussed on a young child found in the muddy street without a breathing mask.

Another interesting and related Venus can be found in another short story, “The Native Soil” by Alan E Nourse (published in Fantastic Universe, 1957, text). This version of the world has the warmth and humidity of the traditional jungle Venus, but instead

“When the first Earth ship finally landed there, all they found was a great quantity of mud.
There was enough mud on Venus to go all the way around twice, with some left over. It was warm, wet, soggy mud—clinging and tenacious. In some places it was gray, and in other places it was black. Elsewhere it was found to be varying shades of brown, yellow, green, blue and purple. But just the same, it was still mud. The sparse Venusian vegetation grew up out of it; the small Venusian natives lived down in it; the steam rose from it and the rain fell on it, and that, it seemed, was that. The planet of mystery was no longer mysterious. It was just messy. People didn't talk about it any more.”

The story focuses on the attempts of humans to mine precious pharmaceutical bacteria from the mud fields, and their floundering bad luck, despite the “help” of the apparently friendly natives.

This idea - that pharmacopoeias of beneficial organisms or compounds might exist on other planets - is one that is sometimes seen elsewhere in science fiction. The Venus described here, with a warm environment rich in nutrients and moisture, is certainly a plausible source of such organisms, if life were indeed to exist elsewhere in the Solar System and if Venus had matched this description.

The diversity of then-plausible stories and environments imagined for Venus in the first half of the twentieth century, demonstrates both the interest shown in our sister planet, and the difficulty of learning anything about conditions beneath its thick cloud cover. Inevitably most of the visions of Venus from the pre-Venera period mirror aspects of Earth, or its history, projecting our own story onto the blank canvas. Many stories of this period are optimistic, even if acknowledging the challenges of a new environment. But the harsh nightmare reality of the Venusian surface as revealed by the Venera and Mariner probes of the 1960s, leading up to the first landing by Venera 7 in 1970, have shattered the earlier Cytherian dreams. In the next part (in two weeks' time), I’ll look at more recent representations of Venus, and how writers have responded to their new challenges.

 “Cytherean Dreams”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog. 31st December 2023


[1] Serviss is better known for his unauthorised sequel to H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898). [Return to text]

[2] Carson Napier later comments candidly on the failure of his plan: ”I had at aimed at Mars, and was about to hit Venus; unquestionably the all-time cosmic record for poor shots.” [Return to text]

[3] Planeta Bur was actually adapted in English as two different films: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968). In both extensive original footage was re-dubbed and intercut with newly filmed segments featuring anglophone actors. As well as Venusian dinosaurs, the film is interesting for a fleeting shot of an interplanetary spaceship with a nice rotating-ring habitat section mounted on its axis for centrifugal artificial gravity. [Return to text]

Comments are welcome. All views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Warwick. All images are either sourced from public websites, or from out-of-copyright material in the author's own collection. They are used here for commentary and criticism.