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Orbital photo of Serrana, a world-building experiment; a hybrid of Earth and Mars with small, isolated seas and extensive deserts and savanna. Orbital photo of Serrana, a world-building experiment; a hybrid of Earth and Mars with small, isolated seas and extensive deserts and savanna. How I Built Serrana

by Chris Wayan, 2004-6

for Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman

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more worlds? Planetocopia!

Serrana has twin sources. One's mentioned all through the site: Ursula Le Guin's classic fable on anarchism, The Dispossessed. But the other is mundane--just a chance encounter.

One day, I had to buy a light fixture for our cooperative house on Bernal Hill in San Francisco, and I walked down to the nearest hardware store. In the gutter by the store, among the leaves, I found an intact light globe, 25 cm (10") across. Watercolor sketch of Serrana's globe; on the left, its origins as a light fixture found in a gutter; on the right, its current state.

In a flash I saw it as a planet, a cast-off, rejected planet. A planet not good enough, so the Americans threw it in the gutter. Just like they're throwing Earth.

So I brought it home, that lost, unwanted world, and cleaned it. Not a chip, not a crack. It was beautiful. Didn't fit the space where we needed a light fixture, so I couldn't use it for that, but... that initial flash kept resurfacing in my mind.

So I looked through my wood pile and found a one-foot round piece left over from another art project, turned the light fixture upside down, snipped the wires off, and screwed it onto that wooden base. Painted the stand black, and suddenly the old light was a globe. Unmistakably a globe.

But one with a northern bias. The south polar region, from around sixty degrees south, has a slight problem--the base of the light-globe bulges here like an ice cap about two hundred miles tall...

But hey, I just won't go there. I never did like snow.
Watercolor sketch of Serrana's globe: the Lesser Seas.


So what sort of world did it want to be? The pathos of an unwanted world made me think of The Dispossessed, where the anarchist utopia began as a prison-moon, a dumping ground like Australia was for the British Empire.

Soon I was looking hard at Le Guin's two tiny hemispheric sketchmaps in The Dispossessed, showing merely coastlines and a few towns. I started trying to map out what they implied for a real world. Not easy. I did a few pencils and watercolors, like the sketch of the Lesser Seas at right. Gradually I worked out what areas would be relatively wet and dry, juggling Coriolis forces and Hadley cells in my mind and on paper. It came out mostly dry or semiarid, of course--this is a planet with shallow little seas, and thin air.

Le Guin's sketchmaps lack any scale, but the text mentions Red Springs and Abbenay are 2500 miles apart; that'd make the planet no larger than Mercury, maybe even as small as Luna! Yet its gravity suggests a much bigger world, more Martian or even a bit bigger--our hero gets into serious political troubles when visiting the Earthlike world of Urras, but extra weight gives him only a few twinges. Nor could a Luna-sized world retain so much air and water.

There are other scale-discrepancies between text and map making it clear Le Guin didn't want to the geographic specifics of Anarres pinned down. Anarres is a political fable, not a physical ecology. But ecology is politics! Pushing a world into the background is exactly how people kill it.

So... I've rebuilt Anarres in the light of modern planetology. The coastlines match, the lands and seas are recognizably Anarresti, but this new version is larger (diameter: 6000 miles, midway between Earth and Mars), more mountainous and geologically active (as Mars turned out to be), warmer (more volcanic CO2 to trap heat), and with a more evolved flora and fauna--intelligent fauna with their own version of anarchism. No need for a transplanted human civilization from some big-brother world, as in the book.

It's Anarres grown up--revised, reborn and renamed: not Anarres, but... Serrana.
Photo of Serrana's globe, showing its stand and the south polar problem it creates.


Since Serrana's a tribute to The Dispossessed, I wanted to refer identifiably to Le Guin's names on Anarres, yet not steal them. Also, English sounds so pleasantly alien, backward. Woble, Murd, Yendik, Trats, Sherf! And that alienness is needed. On her Anarres, the placenames are of two sorts:

  1. Pravic words like Abbenay ("mind"), plus a few non-Pravic placenames inherited from telescopic astronomers on the Old World, like Ans Hos and the Ne Theras.
  2. simple descriptive placenames translated into English--Fresh Start, Wide Plains, Liberty--names natural for colonists, outsiders settling a land they see as a mere backdrop to their brave new society. But utterly wrong for nonhuman natives deeply tied to the land! (The only place I've indulged in such simple descriptive names is to label my alien species, for clarity--certainly they don't call themselves raptors and treesquid!)
Anyway, name-reversal felt like an elegant solution, preserving while estranging. And isn't estrangement one of the cardinal virtues? (Of science fiction, anyway.) Besides, Le Guin's first ambiguous utopia, the seed, I think, for Anarres, was "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"--a short tale inspired by reading "Salem, Oregon" backwards on a roadsign. So if Le Guin can do it...

I reversed names phonetically, not by spelling; so single sounds like "sh" don't turn to "hs". Note that in Pravic, Le Guin's anarchist language, gv and kv are single sounds and letters, so they don't reverse any more than "th" or "sh".

One final problem cropped up. Le Guin simply doesn't mention enough places on Anarres, and even in the course of Shevek's travels, we don't go everywhere; there just isn't worldwide coverage. In such under-described regions, I've named features for Pravic words, phrases, and, especially, for appropriate characters in the books. So Lake Galur is cold, like Shevek's mother Rulag; the Baragv River gets overlooked, like his physics-mentor, poor old Gvarab; and the palindromic Mt Bunub, like her namesake, never shuts up.

Map of Serrana, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
TOUR SERRANA! Click a region for a detailed ground-level tour: Aburros Sea - Woble Range - Yanneba Basin and Plano - Mosnoll and Eronit Basins - The Tsud Desert - Eamet Ocean and South Pole - Leas, Niirg, and Narek: The Lesser Seas - The Rakach Plateau and the Northlands

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