Go on, take a breath. A deep, satisfying, relaxing breath. Fill your lungs, let your diaphragm expand with the air. Let it out when you’re ready.
Do you ever think about breathing? Specifically, about the air you’re taking into your body?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been working on a novel where a group of miners escape from their exploding space station and have to take refuge on an unexplored planet. Science fiction is full of people coming or going to other planets – it’s one of the best things about SF, in my opinion. We’ve all grown up with it, or at least been exposed to for many decades. Even people who don’t follow SF don’t think anything about a story, movie, or TV show that has human characters on other planets.
But I as wrote scenes about my characters arrival on this planet, I had to pause and think this through. They know from probe data that they can breathe the air. It’s got the right mix of nitrogen and oxygen, with no additional gases that are harmful to humans. While they have to make drastic fixes to water and food sources, breathing is not something they have to think about.
Except… that’s wrong. They do have to think about it. They’ll have to deal with it.
Think about a human baby, just born. It’s entire existence has been in a sterile environment within a bag of waters inside its mother, with no breathing needed. Indeed, the lungs are filled with fluid. Oxygen and other needs are provided through the umbilical cord. But suddenly, after several strange hours of hard work, the infant comes out of its bag and out of its mother, and into a world of cold atmosphere. During labor and at the instant of birth, many changes take place in baby’s body to prepare the lungs for air and to force baby to take that first breath.
Earth’s air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and a bit of other gases. Perfect for the newborn human and everyone else on the planet. And…
…and a million other things we seldom think about. Pollen. Dust. Spores. Viruses, bacteria, and microscopic critters. That first breath taken by our innocent babe is full of all of these. And every breath thereafter adds to the load.
For the most part, this is not a problem. Baby is formed of the earth, and that amazing little body has automatic defenses inherited from its time in the womb and supplemented in mother’s milk. Indeed, the human body has even learned to use some of the inhaled matter for growth and health.
Yet the system is not perfect. We don’t all escape unscathed. Hayfever. Rashes. Asthma. Allergies. Gut illness. Even here, on our very own planet, the planet we evolved on… even here, breathing the air can bring us trouble.
So when I think about my poor traumatized characters landing on this unknown planet and stepping out of the their ships and taking that first breath of alien air… what do they take in with it?
I imagine the first thing they’ll do is cough, as their respiratory defenses attempt to expel unwanted spores or pollen (or whatever the alien equivalent is). They’ll sneeze too, for the same reason. If they are lucky (and I haven’t decided yet if they will be lucky or not) then they won’t have any other immediate reactions. They’ll be able to set about the urgent chores of survival as they continue to breathe. And every breath adds to the body’s load of alien matter.
I suspect my characters will have to deal with this sooner rather than later. I imagine it will be an ongoing problem for them.
No, it appears that all the SF we’ve been reading and watching has given us a false sense of security about stepping out on another planet. We’ll need more than the right mix of gases. We’ll need an arsenal of tools to clear our bodies of microscopic TROUBLE.
And bring plenty of tissues.