Science fiction postulates lots of types of planets—although, for the convenience of humanoid characters, most of the ones shown end up being pretty Earthlike. (It sometimes seemed that original-series Star Trek planets could be divided into “piles of rocks” and “places exactly like Earth.” Much easier on the special-effects budget.) Here I’d like to look at one particular variety—the worlds that serve as training locales for tough guys.
If you want to develop an inhumanly formidable army, you can do it by administering a “super soldier serum,” as in the Marvel comics. You can do it by postulating a lifetime of intense training, as with Batman. Or you can do it by throwing your candidates into an environment so fierce that those who survive have to become impossibly “badass” just to live through it.
What TV Tropes calls the “Death World” plays a key role in the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). One of the things that allows the galactic Emperor in Dune to stay on top in the civilization’s complex politics is his legion of crack troops. The “Sardaukar” are so formidable that even the highly-trained private armies of the feudal Houses are reluctant to face them.
It turns out that the Sardaukar are recruited from the Emperor’s prison planet, Salusa Secundus—a planet so hostile that only the strongest can live. “A man who survives Salusa Secundus starts out being tougher than most others. When you add the very best of military training—” (Thufir Hawat, p. 370).
But Arrakis, the planet called Dune, is harsher still. The “Fremen,” the Dune population, appear to be simple barbarian nomads. But the exigencies of survival in the Dune environment are so demanding that, as one character realizes, the Fremen are actually “an entire culture trained to military order” (283)—an invaluable resource for the main character, Paul Atreides, who needs such a cadre to recapture the holdings and status that the Emperor and Paul’s Harkonnen enemies have illegally taken away. The Fremen are so tough that even their civilians, “women and children and old men,” can beat full-fledged Sardaukar (454).
It’s suggested at one point that the Fremen come from the same stock as the original inhabitants of Salusa Secundus—transported there at a time when they had “grown soft with an easy planet” elsewhere (352). That stock may have been hardy to begin with, but it’s clear that the harsh environment is what made the difference. Part of Paul’s eventual plan to take over the Imperium himself is to neutralize the Emperor’s forces by making Salusa Secundus “a garden world, full of gentle things” (481)—a much pleasanter place for the former Emperor to retire in peace, but no longer a source of formidable warriors.
Arrakis, like Salusa Secundus, tests its people rigorously, winnowing out the weak, toughening up the strong.
Prison Planets and More
We wouldn’t choose to live in so taxing an environment—which is why the population is generally conceived as being there not entirely by their own choice.
Jerry Pournelle’s “CoDominium” future history postulates a future in which a number of worlds are settled by political prisoners and other riffraff who are sent there by the combined U.S.-Russian world government. Some of the toughest fighters come from Tanith, a demanding jungle planet that is, as Wikipedia puts it, an “infamous dumping ground for transportees.”
As a kid, I was fascinated by a Tom Godwin SF novel called The Survivors (1958; also known by the cheesier title Space Prison; reprinted in the 2003 collection The Cold Equations & Other Stories). A Terran colony ship is waylaid by the Nazi-like Gerns; the useful emigrants are taken as slaves, while the remainder (“Rejects”) are marooned on what the Gerns mockingly describe as an “Earth-type” planet—Ragnarok, with extreme climates, 1.5 times Earth’s gravity, and fantastically dangerous wildlife. Driven by the goal of avenging themselves and their people, the abandoned colony of “rejects” survives across the generations despite its hardships. When they finally encounter their nemeses again, the colonists’ descendants have become so formidable that they succeed in overrunning and capturing a Gern battleship.
In a smaller way, the colony planet of Grayson in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series reflects a similar situation. Grayson started out as a group of settlers seeking a far-off home for religious reasons. But their ideal planet turned out to have so high a concentration of heavy metals in the environment that indigenous life was poisonous and it was impossible even to live in the open air. The realities of interstellar travel in that period made it impractical for the settlers to simply abandon the colony; in effect they were stranded by their own incautious choice. While the Grayson people start out in the second Honor book as a cliché of religious intolerance, Weber’s perspective gradually shifts until they are regarded as tough, honest allies.
James H. Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub future history hints at the notion of an entire approach to human civilization based on a similar principle—especially in the 1968 novel The Demon Breed. But that’s a more involved topic for another day.
Herbert’s and Pournelle’s notion of “transportation” to inhospitable climes as a punishment, archaic as it may seem, harks back to actual British practices in the 17th through 19th centuries. The British colony of Australia, the destination of many a transportee, still retains (at least in American mythology) the air of a land where hardship breeds self-reliance & sturdy independence (“Where women glow and men plunder”), as both expressed and satirized in Crocodile Dundee. TV Tropes’ Death World page actually has a separate section for “Real Life: Australia.”
In the real world, we intentionally create harsh environments to toughen up specific groups.
Military “boot camp” is the most obvious example. I’ve never gone through armed forces training myself, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But it seems clear that basic training is made intentionally demanding so that the recruit becomes accustomed to hardship and hostility, able to function despite adverse conditions. We may not have a separate planet to host those conditions, but we can create a closed, artificial environment for the purpose.
Law school provides a much less intense case. The first-year “acclimatization” to law school involves legendary stresses and challenges. Of course first-year law students are far better off than military recruits, and even the famous pressures of old-time curricula (as described in the 1971 novel and 1973 film The Paper Chase, or Scott Turow’s 1977 One L) had probably diminished by the mid-1980s, when I attended. But classroom interrogation by the “Socratic method” certainly seems to be designed, in some respects, to intimidate and unsettle the student.
There’s a reason for this. Most lawyers will find themselves in practices where they face strenuous and unfriendly opposition, whether in court or at the negotiating table. If you’re not used to that kind of situation, you’ll have a hard time holding your own. A lawyer has to learn to perform in the give and take of argument, without losing his cool. The classroom experience is simply the first step in learning how to do this: beginning to build up the calluses, so to speak, so we don’t crumple at the first sign of opposition.
I have a notion (again, without personal experience) that a doctor’s residency period may serve a somewhat similar purpose. Doctors in this stage of practice work traditionally long and stressful hours. It’s possible that this experience is itself a form of training for the emergency situations in which a physician may find herself, taking life-or-death steps under pressure.
In a much broader theological context, it’s sometimes been suggested—in what might be called a “forge of souls” theodicy—that evil in the world has the function of building character in a way that could not be otherwise achieved. In some sense, the universe as a whole may be a training camp of sorts.
While the “boot camp world” idea isn’t likely to deal with the problem of evil all by itself, it does provide science fiction writers with a way to push human beings to their maximum potential—creating the larger-than-life characters and institutions that make our fantastic stories so striking, even more than gee-whiz technology and exotic settings.