Humans continually modify much of the environment in order to make it more comfortable to live. Yet many places still exist on Earth and our Solar system that are dangerous and uninhabitable by humans, at least for the long term. That does not stop many creatures making these places home. How do authors work extremes of environment into their worlds?

The earth is full of marvellous examples of physiological and psychological or behavioural adaptations to the extremes found in desert environments. These can be used in a novel to add flavour and verisimilitude to the story. Are the characters passing through and not adapted or used to this environment? Or are they well adapted, even moving past being entirely human?

Body adaptations become important when animals, plants or people moving into a niche environment, or are being forced to do so. The environment may have changed gradually, or they are moving to find new food sources. People migrate, ending up in fringe areas, where the land is so poor or lacking in resources that it is not worth fighting over. Over time, the adaptions spread through the population, as more successful families with mutations produce the most offspring. For animals, we can see the development of different sub species, eventually evolving into an entirely different species. Darwin noticed the development of the different species of finch on the Galapagos Islands, and eventually formed the theory of evolution from his observations. Mutations plus population isolation leading to different species.

This then can be developed in fiction. A colony planet loses contact with incoming ships. Isolation, and the survival of those most fitted to the environment. A theory beautifully and thoroughly adapted in Andre Norton’s “Breed to Come”. Would they still be recognisably human or think of themselves as such?

Physical adaptations include ways to move – wide pads on feet, or conservation of water by concentrating urine. This was used by Randall Garrett in the Gandalara series where the concentrated urine crystals he produced was the first certain proof that he was in a new world. Andre Norton and Herbert in Dune have created worlds were the economy and social structure was heavily influenced by the environment. In Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, human embryos were manipulated in artificial wombs to be able to work better in different places, with inbuilt malaria resistance for tropic areas as an example. Robert Heinlein creates a believable world in his books set on Mars with exotic plants adapted to a cold desert.

The bushmen of the Kalahari have quite distinct physical attributes from surviving their environment for many thousands of years. Their height, fat storage, and intestinal biota are all different to the human average. Due to the feast or famine of hunting, often vast quantities of food are consumed, influencing social behaviours.

Reactions to landing in the desert vary depending on preparation, body morphology and behaviour. In Kenneth Kamler’s book “Surviving the Extremes” he notes that in any change of situation into life threatening, the mind is the most important tool. Quick, clear and correct decisions can make the difference in survival situations. A highly recommended book for those interested in human survival in extremes of environment. Star Trek episodes are often based on the crew’s reactions and decisions in alien environments.

Behavioural adaptations include becoming semi nocturnal, devising ways to collect water, dig burrows to stay cool or hunting methods. Humans in Africa were noted to be almost semi nocturnal by early explorers, and desert clothing is designed for covering up, and adding layers of protection against the sun and sand. 

Plant life too reacts to the low rainfall and nutrient levels. Leaves become spines in cactus, or silvery and tough to reflect heat. Flowering and seeds happen quickly after rains, with the sands blossoming after rainfall, dying just as quickly. 

While the image of desert often conjours sand, there are vast tracts of pebbles, rocks eroded into fantastic shapes, salt lakes with dead trees and salt rich succulent plants, and even salt lakes with bacteria that turn the water pink. Variations in groundwater and geology may produce small pockets of water and lush plant life amidst desolation. Dust, windstorms, and sudden rain deluges can all happen and be incorporated.

Some of these things can be incorporated into the novel, either as part of the world, or a source for the plot. In Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, they built a sand skimming wind driven vehicle, travelled at night, living off the land because they had the knowledge to do so. When an injury becomes life threatening, again obscure knowledge is a life saver. In the old TV series “Man from Atlantis”, the man that could not stay out of water longer than an hour was saved by the doctor remembering the coolness of the underside of stones. Buried in damp sand and covered in stones, he managed to survive long enough for rescue.

The environment affects plants and animals, and by extension the people that live there. Society, diet and activity is dictated by the extreme conditions. Even just a visit will influence the behaviour and survival of your characters in significant ways.

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World building: Deserts