Pocket Atlas of Planets

Alex Dally MacFarlane

Alpha Centauri Bc / gases falling

In the atmospheric remnants of gases falling, the iiiiy braid space into garments.

First seen by the ESPRESSO instrument in 2017 and described by Dr. Suvi Isometsä of Finland and Dr. Scribonia Pulchra of Paleveria, Alpha Centauri Bc is a chthonian planet: a gas giant too close to its star to hold onto its gaseous layers. The last fragments of an atmosphere linger above the rocky core.

Every iiiiy garment includes gases falling — the gas giant as it once was, the gas giant as it will be, the gas blown beyond the solar system — bent around a body visible on the electromagnetic spectrum as a blur. Communication with the iiiiy is complicated. Their mass is indeterminate, their bodies always in motion. The idea of iiiiy languages is — until Torild — thought to be meaningless. After Torild, it is known to be an inadequate terminology. Torild says the best name for the aliens is the sound they make in motion, a cry of ‘iiiiy’, like interstellar ionised gas across Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument — but when Torild says this, hen has only communicated with one iiiiy. Later, hen is less interested in explanations. iiiiy remains our best name.

The iiiiy name the world — which may be their first home — for the memory of its gases falling into space.


Beta Pictoris b

The first exoplanet directly imaged from Earth, in 2014, by the Gemini Planet Imager. Over 63 light years away from Mars and Earth. In the first released image, the sun’s glare is blocked, the planet’s light visible on a blue background rippled by the sun’s energy: a pixellated dot in the distance, a dream of seeing better, of reaching.


The Blazing World

Two worlds, connected at the poles: from one north pole, a woman from one world can sail instantly to another, and journey south through the lands of the bear-people and fox-people towards the royal seat of the Blazing World.

The Earth is not connected to these worlds, but one woman travels from Earth to the Blazing World in 1666 — the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish — by another means: her mind drawn from its body and brought across space by the Empress of the Blazing World, who seeks a scribe. Together they create worlds. The Duchess — ambitious and determined — seeks a world of her own to rule, so sculpts it out of stars and philosophy. The stars are a canvas for her: stories written on lines between blazing points of light. A ruler’s dream. The Duchess invents a society of rationality and struggles for words to express its beauty.

On the Blazing World, the bird-people describe the extraordinary splendour of the sun-stone in their sky and discuss its movements and the moon’s. The bear-people, experimental philosophers, examine the stars through their telescopes, but their arguments upset their Empress. The real, blazing stars are difficult to understand. The Empress eradicates conflict to rule a world of peace — and, not content, creates more worlds to cover in her rationality.

The Duchess’ method of creating worlds proves popular.

Attempts to locate the Blazing World in the night sky of Earth all fail. Margaret Cavendish is its only visitor. No iiiiy braids it into a garment.


carbon hail

The first person to travel with the iiiiy, Torild, allows henself to be braided with the constellation Cygnus and the gas of gases falling crying across interstellar space. Torild remains in hens apartment in Uppsala, silent, still, each second an unknowable time braided on the iiiiy’s body. Torild sees a new world: carbon falling to its depths like hail, bands of bright hydrogen and helium starred with frozen ammonia in a constellation of crystals. A Jupiter, abroad. The iiiiy and Torild communicate by bending the solar winds of the system’s dying star into directions, decisions, longing. Down into carbon hail the iiiiy descends, and Torild bends to hold the carbon like hail in a cup of hands — bends, braids — and thinks hen understands how a new iiiiy is born. Hen un-bends. Hail falls. Hen returns to hens body in Uppsala and finds that only five minutes passed.

The iiiiy bends space and braids carbon hail in Torild’s absence.

“I held carbon hail in my hands,” hen says — staring at hens hands, caught in hens words’ two meanings, in memories. Longing.

The scientists hen is trying to talk to disbelieve Torild’s story, cannot deny the data on the instruments Torild set up in hens apartment, want to believe.

“It was me,” Torild said, “but not my body. My… self? Braided around a being that bends, no, borrows space, that copies it? But I don’t remember sitting in my apartment for five minutes. I don’t think I do. My body is the same — my back still hurts!” Torild laughs. “I’m not changed by it. I remember…” Hens hands curve into cups for carbon hail.

“How did you do it?” is the most common question, as Torild’s story spreads. “How did you become braided?”

“I borrowed my brother’s instruments,” Torild said, “and sent out the same signals everyone else has been doing.” Or: “I just thought about it, about how much I wanted it, and the iiiiy braided me.” Or: “I don’t really remember. I remember…” Hands like cups. Or: “I don’t know.” No one can replicate it. In a later study, Torild says, “I can still feel the iiiiy. I can still…” Instruments set up go wild with the twist of Torild’s hand. “I bent background radiation from the universe’s birth. I wonder if I always could bend, borrow, space,” Torild says, smiling, “but no one ever recorded it until after I met the iiiiy.”

When Torild tires of being asked to teach others to talk to the iiiiy, hen leaves.


Infinity Of Worlds

Giordano Bruno says of space in 1584, of its fixed stars: In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own. Each heliocentric system, like ours, holds worlds.

Torild, a child, reads those words and burns with longing to see those worlds, but space exploration is frightening: the self-splitting required to reach superior Venus and inferior Venus, the un-welcoming government of Caskia on Mars, the complete inability to communicate with the aliens seen as blurs in space, the distances, the inevitability of insanity. So Torild studies early space exploration in London, where hen is called ‘she’ for hens body, for hens specific interest in women’s pre-20th Century observations of the solar system and early travels. Hen hates it and leaves after less than a year — but the women, they remain.

An infinity of women studying — reaching — an infinity of worlds. What a dream!

Torild adds other genders to that dream.


Gliese 1214 b

Today’s weather is clouds of potassium chloride, too dense to see through.


HD 40307 g

Detected by the HARPS instrument in the distinction between starlight stirred by solar events and a planet’s gravity. Announced in 2012. HD 40507 g is the sixth planet from its sun, a super-Earth with a 200-day orbit, 42 light years away from Earth and Mars.

Life on HD 40507 g is fractal. Simple life forms in perfect pattern-shapes in a sea over one hundred kilometres deep. Unthinking. Unchanging, in a fundamental way: never changing beyond fractal forms. One-and-a-half billion years after the first fractal pieces form, complex pieces will develop, capable of comprehending their surroundings in light and sound — but the life is young yet, only nine hundred million years old, still simple.


Kappa Andromedae b / cupping planet-heat

A super-planet. A dream of a star, with moons like planets bathed in the heat released by its dream and forced into geological activity by its gravity. Its star is a distant dot in the sky. Its dark bulk looms, large.

On the moon cupping planet-heat, rock formations stand. The rocks are un-eroded by winds, tall and broad like a tukiliit, with a hollow in their heads: holding liquid, cupping planet-heat from Kappa Andromedae b, home to microbial life. The life is related. The winds blow it across the moon’s surface, reaching rock formations with liquid and planet-heat in a cup so small the life must eat the rock into shape, reaching rock formations with life with which it can breed. Eventually formations die, the cups in their heads scoured bare by the winds. The life, typically colourless, lives on in other cups and gradually grows in complexity. One day it will out-grow its cups and need bowls.

An iiiiy braids the cups of cupping-planet heat with the bowls of the microbial life’s future and the bulk of gases falling against its bright, close sun.



A mini-Neptune: a rocky mass greater than Earth with an atmosphere of hydrogen, water and methane, deep in an extended hydrogen atmosphere, like a nut in a shell thicker than itself. In orbit about Kepler-11, located 2,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. First detected by the Kepler telescope. First seen up-close by Torild, who talks of the constellation braided with hen: “I could hear swift songs in that planet’s atmosphere, like bats. I could sense stirring in another, gases with thoughts–”



In 1893, Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant travel by aeroplane to Mars: the first from Earth to visit the sister societies of the red planet. No communications cross the space between them, not yet, but the societies have seen one another through telescopes: seen the extent of their cities and cultivated lands, seen blue and green, seen red. The harsh landscape of Mars supports only two countries. Their cities stand white amid red-tinged crops in fields made fertile by irrigation from the planet’s depths. Alice and Ella stay in the country of Paleveria, in its capital city of Thursia, with the astronomer Severnius and the banker Elodia. Women and men own businesses, go into politics, vote, drink. Marsian women wrestle on marble floors. In Caskia, in its capital of Lunismar, they stay with the woman Ariadne, who has never heard of hubris. The countries are like the obverse and reverse of a coin: in Paleveria, the genders are crass, rough, politically successful; in Caskia, they are kind, loving, generous.

Ber underlines: “It is impossible for people on Earth to write about Mars without writing about gender.”

Two hundred years pass. The Paleverian astronaut Vipsania is the first to walk on Phobos. A month later, the Caskian astronauts Arim and Hyp step side-by-side on Deimos. Vipsania and Hyp are bitter rivals: Vipsania writes triumphant poetry in her landing module about her win in the race to the moons; Hyp calls Paleveria’s spaceflight programme a stillbirth. The remark is prescient. Vipsania’s craft cracks open on return to Mars, spilling her into space.

The remark is cruel. The people of Caskia keep the workings of their external wombs a secret from Paleveria, concerned the country will experience a similar surge in productivity without pregnancy.

Ber underlines: “There is always more.”

All the people in Caskia are women. Caskians who are not women hide their genders until they cross the craters between the countries. Women — all-bodied — can cross the craters to Caskia. Some do.

A month before hen leaves London, Torild attends a conference where visiting academics from Caskia talk of their scorn for Earth’s academics’ analyses. No more the coin-opposites of Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant’s observations. No more the comparisons to Earth: the old idea that each Marsian country is an Earth gender writ large and Caskia is the softness of Earth’s women. “Caskia and Paleveria–” where all three genders are equal “–are too much for your academics.”

Torild thinks of the early poems of Hyp’s only child, Ber, which argue that the countries have always defied easy analysis, that Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant saw wrong the manliness of Paleveria, the sweetness of Ariadne, and that the real history of Mars is unwritten. Torild suspects that the same is true of Earth. Ber’s later work turns to gender in Caskia: “If there is one gender, is there any? [metaphor redacted] Is it right to say we are women when there are no men?” Ber’s work is received badly in Caskia — most of all by Ber, who fails to believe se’s own argument and flees to Paleveria.

Torild’s dissertation for hens degree goes unfinished: over six thousand drafted words destabilising the relationship between the women of Earth and the women of Mars, the Blazing World and Mizora in pre-20th Century observations, using as hens primary tool the poetry of Ber and a fragment of a fox-woman’s polemic surviving in a presumed-apocryphal draft of Margaret Cavendish’s book. Hens final notes indicate hen is drifting away from writing about women: “Though interesting to consider the ways that women have acted within early space exploration, Ber’s work points to a present conversation even less considered that must be developed too I want –”

Less than a year later, hen is braided by an iiiiy for the first time.


Mizora (Earth)

Vera Zarovitch escapes north from her Siberian exile, into the Arctic seas. A waterfall plunges her into the Earth’s centre: into Mizora. There, men are forgotten. Babies are born by parthenogenesis. The women covet wide waists, create rain by discharging electricity in the air, communicate by videophone, eat artificial meat, ensure all babies are blonde-haired, white-skinned.

Relating her stay to Mary E. Bradley Lane in 1880, Vera talks of the technology and the strengths of women without men.

Torild never bends-communicates with an iiiiy about braiding Mizora.



Torild is braided in an iiiiy’s garment — braided with red stripes of microbial life in Europa’s ice and gases falling accreting in its first, further-out orbit — and journeys between solar systems. The iiiiy wearing red stripes / gases falling / Torild meets an iiiiy wearing the diamond skeleton of an Itoor from the gas giant Niw / gases falling / dead stars. The iiiiy are fascinated by life and death. Torild senses the iiiiy compare the cold cores of long-dead stars to the Itoor’s skeleton to the stress fractures of life written across the diamond spine to the Europan red stripes to Torild’s own spine and wrinkled face and memories of Earth.

The Itoor have twenty thousand mutually intelligible languages, spoken in songs of charged particles up and down the planet’s gaseous layers. Each Itoor chooses a language at birth. Changing the language throughout their three-year lifespans is not uncommon.

Torild senses the iiiiy compare memories and know no garment-braid tells of an iiiiy’s birth or death or how or where the iiiiy came to exist.

Torild wonders if it is entirely human — entirely wrong — to say that the Itoor have twenty thousand genders.


palinode / PSR J1719-1438 b

A memory of a star. Its sister-star turns supernova, turns pulsar, turns PSR J1719-1438 b into a red giant that diminishes ever inward: crushed into carbon. A diamond star-memory planet in orbit around its pulsar-sister.

22nd-century Poet-physicist Olla carves palinodes onto its surface.

Once-fierce, once-famed

Now known:



–opening salvo of a hundred lines about a century of science and space travel discourse setting women’s contributions against the dominance of men’s: a so-called solution, a conclusiveness, a simplicity–

a lie that lasted too long

Nestled in the palinodes Olla writes odes to Torild and Ber for unravelling it.

Over years, she, he, se, e returns: year after year, covering the carbon planet in verse.

When an iiiiy braids Torild / gases falling engulfed by its dying sun / palinode, Olla is a man, admiring his latest work. When the braid loosens, se still carves. Torild, braided with gases falling and palinode, reads a form of English so far from familiar that hen barely understands it. Hen sees hens name. Hen knows that hen is remembered. Ber sees it and knows that finally, in the future, a better understanding is reached.



Comet-spotting Caroline Herschel’s lover, Tiresias — the name in their letters, not in life — takes William Herschel’s idea of life on the Sun to heart. Tiresias talks of the Sun as a planet, hotter than most, and tells of people living under its surface in a society of change: genders crossing their bodies like sun spots.

The Sun is no planet, but its life is as Tiresias describes, and when briefly braided on an iiiiy with three suns Torild learns of its galaxy-wide habitation.



The Babylonians believe that they observe one planet when they write:

Year 1 inferior Venus sets on Shabatu 15 and after three days rises on Shabatu 18

Year 2 superior Venus vanishes E on Arahsamnu 21 and after one month twenty-five days appears W on Tebetu 16

Concurrent expeditions cross space thousands of years later to twinned Venuses, inferior and superior, two facets of the same planet, two space craft identical in every way, even the pilot. Inferior Irunn monitors her approach to inferior Venus. Superior Irunn writes poetry of that growing yellow-tinged sphere. The clouds haunt them both. Minutes apart they arrive and dip into the high atmosphere like bathyspheres. They hear–

They hear the gale-force winds of Venus. Superior Irunn’s screams interrupt inferior Irunn’s shaking, halting transcriptions.

Day 1 inferior Irunn: words yellow in my ears like pleas, I cannot taste what they touch, I–

Superior Irunn’s transcriptions are audio-only:

Day 1 superior Irunn: arahhhh aaaa.

Sulphur sings up inferior Irunn’s spine in confused ecstasy, sets her to writhing in the freefall of her low orbit. Winds flow across superior Irunn’s tongue. Computers communicate. Correct. The space craft hang over the north poles of each Venus like cyclopean eyes.

“We must go home,” superior Irunn says, hoarse-voiced.

“No. Descend with me. If we do it together, precisely together–”

Their computers co-ordinate a synchronous descent. The atmosphere parts. Sulphur turns to bone: ghost-writing in a language that the winds wend into Irunn’s fingers.

Superior and inferior Irunn transcribe together:

Superior Irunn: The dead are planted pelvis-deep in the plains of Venus, growing memories

Inferior Irunn: that seek the sky and its stars scattered overhead like ossicles, awaiting

Superior Irunn: our scream

Inferior Irunn: our scream

Superior Irunn: cloud-caught cantos-screaming

Inferior Irunn: I walked on webs braid-bonded to bridges over waters burn-bright and I was bold, bold — I died — we died — billions of years before your bones built you — we dream — Venus alive! — overhead a veil-sky vestament-kind, soft-voiced, killing slowly — if farra-found life plied far from its plain it perished — novae-novices broken navicular-bold, newly burning, betrayed — coronae circles cuneiform-boned by burnt brethren — we died by

Superior Irunn: Venus suffocating, sky hating, stars fading

Inferior Irunn: listen, legends-long songs glisten

Megabytes accrete.

Warnings of low oxygen go unheeded. Alarms scream. Winds scream. Irunn screams and gasps and eventually her hands go still, the transcription incomplete. Her bones on both superior Venus and inferior Venus sing of her childhood as Irunn, sing of her splitting into superior Irunn and inferior Irunn — seeing herself, touching palm to palm and smiling, pride-flushed with the success of sanity — sing of her journey to Venus, sing of her work.

Superior Caven and inferior Caven dream of their departure despite Irunn’s death.



A planet and a moon seen only once from Earth. Starless, wandering, caught in front of a distant star: microlensing tells of a probable planet and its moon, twenty million kilometres apart. It cannot be confirmed.

Ber is the second person to be braided by an iiiiy. Through the braid, Ber senses other iiiiy, other garments — Torild, whose pleasure at Ber’s braiding is faint — other planets. Inspired by the work of the millennia-old Marsian prodigy Diotima and the ancient Earth scientists Hypatia and Mariam Al-Ijliya, Ber begins work on an astrolabe — wanting to convey the complexity of planets and the life living on them. Metal discs lay layer on layer. A galaxy of gender. Ber cannot hold it. In the end, Ber reverts to writing: an atlas.

Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. When not researching narrative maps in the legendary traditions of Alexander III of Macedon, she writes stories, found in Clarkesworld, Interfictions Online, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies Phantasm Japan, Solaris Rising 3 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). For Tor.com, she runs the Post-Binary Gender in SF column. Find her on Twitter: @foxvertebrae.