From Star Wars to Pitch Black, Dune to Starship Troopers, the trope of the desert planet is widely recognised. So widely recognised, in fact, that all you really need to show in any sci fi offering is a single scene with sand dunes – the audience will tend to assume that the entire planet is arid and desert-like, unless the plotline explicitly points out that this isn’t the case.
In fiction, the societies on such worlds, human or otherwise, tend to borrow heavily from desert dwelling cultures throughout human history. Sci fi depictions of nomadic people like the Bedouin once were are not uncommon. Likewise, the ever present space western trope as seen in shows like Firefly. Fictional desert planets may have a booming trade in water. They also, conveniently for film studios, often look a lot like certain parts of Southern California. In my opinion, this is one trope where the portrayal on the big screen is often a fairly good match for what such a planet may actually be like.
But what about real life desert planets? Well, the reason I’m discussing this trope now is that there’s quite definitely one actual desert planet which we all know about. Actually, this particular planet isn’t a lot like the ones you’ll see in the movies. It’s name? Mars. Yes, Earth’s butterscotchy sibling fits the definition of a desert planet surprisingly well. It’s arid, water there is scarce, and the little world is rocked by occasional planetwide dust storms. Being as it’s inevitably going to be the first planet colonised by humans, Mars is quite possibly destined to end up with rather a space western vibe about it too. We may be talking high tech pressurised rovers instead of wagon trains, but in some ways it’s not inconceivable that the colonisation of Mars may end up as some kind of interplanetary Oregon trail. Except hopefully without the dysentery.
In the rest of the galaxy though, it’s been hypothesised by some that desert planets may turn out to be the most common type of habitable world. Simply put, when you account for desert planets, the habitable zones around stars are a lot broader. The same idea has led to the conclusion that, in the past, both Venus and Mars may have been quite hospitable to life. Though honestly, in terms of what we understand of them, the jury is still out on whether or not there’s any life on either of them right now.
Whether a verdant oasis like Earth truly is a minority or not is really not something we can speculate on right now – though there have been times in Earth’s history when most of the land was actually desert. Whether hot, cold, or simply dry, there isn’t really any one good definition of what a desert planet is right now. Probably because we don’t know of enough actual planets to form a definition just yet.
Whatever that definition turns out to be, chances are good that if the human race ever truly becomes a spacefaring species, we may very well find ourselves encountering desert planets out there in the galaxy. However, those planets are less likely to come with Jawas included.
A trope is a recurring theme in any narrative which conveys information to the audience. These are snippets of information which have somehow ended up in our collective subconscious as ways in which storytellers have gotten their points across. Overused tropes end up as clichés.
This article includes images from NASA’s Spirit and Curiosity rovers. It also features imagery from Star Wars Episodes III and IV, which are © Lucasfilm all rights reserved. Images are used here for the pusposes of discussion and critique, in accordance with fair use policies. Planetary image of Tatooine taken from Wookieepedia.