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"When you live on a planet the size of a town

You can't get your kicks by getting around"
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, "The Kid With the Replaceable Head"

Adventure Towns IN SPACE! Most Space Opera stories are lifted from other genres, then transposed into outer space. And the most obvious way to do it is to make everything take place on a planet. Not just any planet, but Planetville, the planet that serves the same function in space that towns and countries do in Earth-based stories.

If a Wild West story is about outlaws going from town to town, the Wagon Train to the Stars will be about outlaws going from planet to planet. If the Nazis conquer a dozen small countries, the space Nazis will conquer a dozen planets. If a plague broke out in a Third World country, the alien plague will fill an entire planet.

By extension, if a planet represents a country, an alien race represents an ethnic group, and an empire that spans Earth becomes a multi-planet empire.

Unfortunately, because Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, stories about Planetville make no sense. Nobody seems to realize how BIG a planet is -- everything in Planetville takes the same amount of time as stories set in towns or countries. In the updated Wild West story, the outlaws are "exiled from the planet" just like they'd be exiled from Dodgeville, and the outlaws have to leave... instead of challenging the authorities to find them when they have an entire planet in which to hide. When the space Nazis invade, they seem to need the same number of soldiers as the Earth Nazis needed to invade Europe. And when the crew of the Cool Starship finds the cure for the alien plague, the issue of distributing it to an entire planet rarely gets mentioned at all. These considerations are minimized or left out entirely in many stories.

This might work if technology was really advanced -- if transport were so fast that crossing a planet took as much time as crossing a town or Earth country does today. But that almost never happens. Besides, even if Planetville were a global village in terms of travel time, a planet still has thousands of times as many people, thousands of times as many hiding-places, thousands of times as many strategic locations, thousands of times as many and as much of everything as a city on Earth today has.

A side effect of this is that the characters never realize that things can happen in parts of planets. You will never see aliens trying to capture a planet's equator, or its polar caps -- it's the whole planet or bust.

Planetville instantly explains these Speculative Fiction Tropes:

This trope is sometimes extended further still, with each star system apparently only having a single planet in it... every body in the system aside from Planetville itself is merely decoration if it is considered at all.

Sometimes a result of the Law of Conservation of Detail in universes with dozens or hundreds of planets/star systems.

Not to be confused with planets that are literally covered by a single city--that's an Ecumenopolis, a subtype of the aforementioned Single Biome Planet (and one of the few that is remotely within the realm of possibility).

Examples of Planetville include:


Comic Books

  • Lucifer: The birth of a new "creation"--explicitly described as a new "multiverse"--seems to consist of approximately one region the size of Europe being made.
    • That's just where all the interesting stuff happens (following in daddy's footsteps). Twenty six pages showing the inky blackness of space in order to demonstrate scale does not make for a fun story.
  • Oddly inverted in a Marvel Comics miniseries, Captain Universe. Gladiator, a Flying Brick alien flies to Earth from across the galaxy. That sort of travel is usually hand waved in comics as those characters being just that darn powerful. It gets odd when Gladiator has to fly from one part of the globe to another once he gets there and uses the Captain Universe Power-Up in order to grant himself enough speed to make the flight in time. So essentially, space is smaller than the planet Earth, according to this story.


Film

  • Star Wars is made of this trope. Luke is supposed to find Yoda, but he's simply told to find him in the Dagobah system (although in that case he only succeeds because Yoda crashes him near his hut). Obi-Wan is told that General Grievous is in the Utapau system, and the first place he lands is the city that Grievous has taken as his headquarters. Anakin tells Padme that he's going to Mustafar, then she has no trouble at all finding him later. Granted, a combination of The Force and on-ship guidance systems can be (and in the Expanded Universe, have been) used to Hand Wave all of those.
    • A Hand Wave excuse for Planetvilleism in Star Wars is that because of the nature of the galaxy being centered around space travel, if something isn't within an hour's flight of the nearest space port, it's probably not important.
    • And in The Thrawn Trilogy, where Luke thinks being given a planet as a location for a warehouse means the informer will not need come with them. Han points out that a planet is a big place to hide one building in.
      • The Thrawn Trilogy also explains away the Dagobah example when Luke theorizes that Yoda used the Force to blank his sensors and bring him to the correct location.
    • In The Phantom Menace, all that's needed to conquer Naboo is simply taking the capital city, and "blockading" the whole planet from surrounding space with a handful of ships. Nevertheless, the protagonists trying to flee the planet aim their ship straight at the enemy fleet to "break through the blockage", and have to do so before they can jump to hyperspace.
      • Just taking Theed to take Naboo makes some sense: planetary governments in such a galactic culture could very likely have most of their important infrastructure in one place, meaning the only thing left to fight back would be police forces and the like lacking an overall leadership (which actually happened).
      • And let's not forget that the ship can only jump to hyperspace when outside gravity wells, both the planet's and those of the Interdictor ships the Trade Federation most likely used.
    • In The Empire Strikes Back, the Empire finds the Rebel base simply by launching scouting droids at various planets. Sure, it apparently took a few years but that would be an insanely short amount of time for even one planet, to say nothing of an entire galaxy's worth. Keep in mind the scouting droid that eventually found the base did so after conveniently landing about a mile away.
      • In the same movie, some rebels find Luke in the wilderness by just flying over the surface the morning after he went missing. Those sort of rescue missions last days or even weeks in real life. Granted, they did know where he went missing, since he was on a scouting patrol for them.


Literature

  • Justified and Deconstructed in Dan Simmons' Illium. Fax Portals (teleportation booths) are all pervasive and no one needs to walk more than half a mile to get anywhere (no planes, no cars, no boats). The problem is that they start thinking they really do live in a Planetville, most of the planet has been completely forgotten.
  • Justified also in Dan Simmon's Hyperion series. Millions of Farcaster portals mean that pretty much anywhere on a world (indeed, a couple of hundred worlds) are rarely more than a few steps away. Some houses are built on multiple planets, with farcasters serving in place of doors. Martin Silenus had one; the bathroom is a raft on the ocean planet Mare Infinitus.
    • Also averted: Most planets are clearly stated to have multiple, distinct locations.
  • A very literal example is found in The Little Prince, who is the sole inhabitant of a planet about the size of a house.
  • Played straight and justified in Larry Niven's Ringworld series, as teleportation and other technology all but eliminate differing cultures across Earth.
    • Mostly averted however, with the Ringworld itself — an artificial ring-shaped structure, surrounding a sun at about the Earth's distance from our sun, which is also 1,000,000 miles or so wide. Let's put it this way... the first Ringworld novel chronicles a months-long journey by the main characters, across a wildly diverse area of the Ring, from one edge. They only explore about a fifth of the way across from that edge and back. That's the sort of scale we're dealing with.
  • Jack Vance's science fiction abounds with Planetvilles. Typical is The Demon Princes series, where, for example, one planet is organised around its publishing industry, being the source of the main magazine found throughout a star cluster in the manner of a dominant regional town paper. However, such immediacy is central: it is hard to see how it could be written more realistically without spoiling the story and its setting. A redeeming justification is the incredibly sparse nature of settlement, where a planet might only have a single town. Or Smade's World: halfway between Smade Mountains and Smade Ocean lies Smade's tavern. All else is wilderness.
    • Completely averted though with those worlds Vance wrote complete novels or even series about. These are diverse and rich in detail. Except Pao, the Planetville nature of which caused the crisis that gets the plot started.
  • Murray Leinster several times used this trope, justified strongly by the worlds in question being new, young colonies with only one settlement established, or exotic worlds with very little human-habitable land.
  • In Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War books, while a single star system frequently has a system-wide government, various lower levels of government seem to exist. Also, one-Hat planets tend to have been originally colonized by racists or religious extremists.
  • The Pendragon Adventure features ten territories, essentially different dimensions or time periods of other dimensions (such as Earth in three time periods). Almost all of the action takes place in very small areas, generally very close to the flumes (inter-territory portals). Justified because the antagonist, Saint Dane, is using the flumes to target very specific turning points on each territory, singular events that can turn the territory towards chaos if influenced the "right" way.
    • On Denduron, everything important is within walking distance, such as the arena, the Bedoowan castle, the Milago village, and the mines.
    • On Cloral, only three floating cities ("habitats) are seen, and two of them are colliding. High-speed watercraft do take the main characters far from habitats, however.
    • On the three Earths, almost everything takes place in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The battle for First Earth is pretty much almost all New York City.
    • Eelong takes the main characters far from the city of Leeandra, but except for the journey to Black Water, everything is within walking distance of Leeandra.
    • Veelox all takes place within one city.
    • Ibara is almost entirely on a single island, with some action in a city on the mainland. This is mainly because Ibara is the future of Veelox, when most of the civilized citizens live on the island Ibara.
    • The battle for Quillan is entirely in the limits of a single city approximately the size of Los Angeles.
    • The action on Zadaa is mostly in the city of Xhaxu, a thinly-veiled Africa. Indeed, the entire conflict in The Rivers of Zadaa is similar to the South African apartheid.
  • Fantasy fiction can make similar errors, but with Planevilles instead of Planetvilles. It's particularly egregious when other planes/realities are considered infinite, yet are ruled over by a single archdemon, fey lord, or the like.
  • Avoided in regards to Earth in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series - the difference in national identities confuses the Lizards, as does the human propensity to keep fighting even after the capitals and major cities have been subjugated. The tropes is in full effect on the Lizards' homeworld, however, and to some extent justified in that it is (mostly) a Single Biome Planet that has had a single, united monarchy for millenia.
  • In Star Trek: The Battle of Betazed, Cort Enaran is leading the Betazoid Resistance. Having one group of resistance fighters under one mountain chain referred to as "the Betazoid Resistance" seems to take us into Planetville territory. That said, Enaran and other leaders are former members of the parliament, so their resistance cell (near the capital) might be considered the resistance. Still, the novel probably runs afoul of this trope.


Live Action TV

  • Star Trek is a constant offender here, where everybody on a planet is the same and nothing happens on a smaller scale, ever. When a low-tech planet isn't united, Starfleet considers it in civil war. Earth in 2000 BC was presumably in civil war, and (except for some arguable periods of peace) continued to be at least into the nineteenth century. Possibly the only exception is the depiction of Bajor in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as its proximity to the show's main setting meant that the writers were able to focus on the planet in greater depth than any other planet depicted in Star Trek's history before or since.
    • Particularly conspicuous in The Next Generation episode "Reunification", in which the Romulans planned to seize control of the entire planet Vulcan with just a few thousand ground troops.
    • At least two separate stories have featured autonomous colonies with populations given as being in the hundreds, acting (and recognised) as planetary governments. Several others come close.
  • Both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis are very consistent with this. Nothing of interest happens more than a few kilometres from a Stargate, most planets seem to possess a few thousand people at most, and conquering/purging/eating an entire planet is apparently a very simple affair. The characters even seem to be aware of this, as one episode featured Carter and O'Neill trapped in a frozen cave and immediately thinking they were on an ice planet -- but it turned out that they were really on Earth, in the Antarctic. On the few occasions that a planet has more than one state, such as Jonas Quinn's homeworld, they are always at war with each other.
    • At least for SG-1, they're walking through the gate, which severely limits the amount of the planet that they're capable of exploring. So, while each destination is essentially a "planet", the area of relevance to the SGC is only a few dozen square miles. But the excuse hardly works for their enemies, who are kind enough to place all their facilities within walking distance despite having spaceships and teleporters.
      • The teleporters are limited, and if the only methods of travel you had were by magic doorway, lear-jet and massive space-ship you'd probably spend a lot of time walking too, and you'd ensure that said magic doorways were as near to your current resource pile as possible.
  • Various Power Rangers series portray Earth as Planetville. Apparently, conquering whatever town the Rangers happen to live in is the key to taking the whole thing.
    • Are you sure they're targeting the city to conquer it and not to draw the Rangers in the open to kill them?
    • Subverted in RPM, where the rest of the planet was conquered first.
  • Justified in Firefly, as all the planets there are colonies of varying sizes, usually initially settled by a cohesive group of people in just one area.


Tabletop Games

  • Both averted and played straight in Warhammer 40000, where the background fluff suggests that capturing a planet can involve tens of millions of soldiers and require weeks or months in order to wrest control of strategic locations, and afterwards the occupation forces might have to wage a low-intensity campaign for years in order to root out the remaining resistance... but in gameplay terms, world- or system-spanning campaigns may be decided by small-scale battles held by players around the world.
    • Justified in the cases of Hive Worlds, where pollution forces the inhabitants into a few gigantic cities surrounded by endless ash wastes, and Death Worlds, where the local geography and/or wildlife makes widespread population growth impossible.
    • Played straight with the Space Marines, as less than a thousand of them can crush entire rebellions and purge whole worlds. Than again, aside from being extremely powerful Super Soldiers, and most citizens thinking of Space Marines as literal angels, believing them to be divine agents of the God-Emperor, their strategies revolve around swift, brutal strikes that decapitate the enemy's command structure, before or after some judicious use of orbital bombardment, so it's less blatant than normal.
    • Also justified in some locations, such as Holy Terra, which is indeed a planet-wide city.
      • ...with the Emperor's palace complex taking up most of Europe.
  • BattleTech has entire planets garrisoned by a single regiment of 108 giant robots. Major factory worlds and capitals might get 3 to 5 of them. This is like suggesting you need only one tank division to conquer Earth.
    • Well arguably, if your tank is a bolo, you wouldn't even need a whole tank division. A single bolo would do the job in fact. But, that's crossing the streams.
    • There's another aspect involved in the numbers used, too : The populace is, in general, rather fatalistic about accepting their fate as serfs in the Feudal Future setting of BattleTech.
      • These numbers only hold true for late Succession Wars if even that. Prior to 3028 twelve mechs was considered an huge amount of resources to commit to anything.
  • Averted and played straight in Traveller. It is made clear that there is more to most planets but that is all PCs often see because they are interested in intersteller stuff.
    • Many planets in Traveller are colonies with populations of 1,000,000 or less. All the interesting people are likely to be in the same city as the starport.


Video Games

  • Knights of the Old Republic features this. In order to find the Star Maps, all the group need to learn is what planet it's on. They're even within walking distance of the starport (Manaan excepted, maybe). The sequel averts this however, you land on Telos, which is a planet recovering from war. The main first part you land on is forest and tropical, and then you fly to the polar ice caps.
  • Justified in Halo. The Covenant have battles in space above the planet, and usually seem to land on one city/country, ignoring the rest of the planet. However, the only reason the ground assault exists is to recover Forerunner artifacts, which are only on whatever part of the planet they land on. Once finished, they fly back into space and glass the entire planet, assuming they won the space battle. Which they almost always do, given how much more advanced they are compared to humanity. In the third installment, a character specifically noted that Truth could've landed his forces anywhere, but specifically chose the ruins of New Mombasa, Africa.
    • They also do ground assaults to destroy the ground-based generators which power the planet's orbital MAC cannons which are pretty much the only weapon humans have which can reliably destroy Covenant ships.
    • This trope is thoroughly averted however when on the eponymous Halo rings. They're about the size of Earth, and they have a very diverse ecosystem.
  • Freelancer is a major offender: every single planet is a Planetville. Without exception. Pittsburgh, for example, appears to be an entire planet with just one little mining site. And on top of that, planets usually offer the same services as a "tiny little" battleship. This is rather justified, though, because due to The Law of Conservation of Detail, Freelancer has hundreds of planets and space stations within its own world.
    • Somewhat justified in that you are a freelance trader, you only ever go as far as the single spaceport on each planet. You buy/sell resources in the port, and visit the port bar to get contracts. The rest of the planet is irrelevant to you.
    • You don't need to see anything on the planets because nothing happens there. Any planet-side parts of the story are limited to chats in the local bar.
  • In Beyond Good and Evil all action (apart from the endgame) takes place in and around a single town (justfied/handwaved using guard towers that drive you back if you attempt to leave "territorial waters"); yet in the beginning of the game you are given a task of completing a full photographic inventory of the species living on the planet. Likewise, there seem to be no pearls on the planet apart from the gameplay area (judging from the message you get after collecting all of them).
  • Pretty much any 4X strategy game set in space will treat planets exactly like this. The most obvious sign being the total impossibility of two players, even allied ones, having a settlement on the same planet at the same time.
    • The second and third Master of Orion games have buildings for specific purposes, compared to the generic "factories" of the first game that were never shown.[1]
    • The Galactic Civilisations games also feature this, with the manual explicitly invoking The Law of Conservation of Detail; managing an interstellar government is difficult enough without the intricacies of entire planets as well.
  • Outpost 2 (by Sierra) features a distant planet called New Terra, with only two cities (Eden and Plymouth). And both cities still fight over the land's resources, especially when a plague (called the Blight) slowly takes over the planet.
  • Phantasy Star is an especially egregious example, with each planet having an average of 2-3 cities. Casual Interstellar Travel means that a quest to talk to the governor of one Single Biome Planet will involve buying a cake from the only bakery in the star system, located at the bottom of a dungeon on another planet. Alis even has the Fly spell, designed to take you back to the last church you visited, which works without regard to whether or not it is on the same planet you are currently visiting.
  • Mass Effect averts this, somewhat. In the Codex, it is mentioned that planetary invasions are common. However, thanks to the way colonization works in most cases, there are rarely any planets with more than a dozen settlements. The exceptions are mainly the species of the galaxy's homeworlds (Earth, Pavalen, Thessia, Sur'Kesh, etc.)


Western Animation

  • The Filmation series Bravestarr is a major offender in this regard. It features New Texas, an entire futuristic western-styled planet with exactly one -1!- village-sized settling by the name of Fort Kerium. Especially mind-blogging considering that the planet is said to be rich with the rare and valuable element Kerium. However, considering that one episode had the local star stolen and buried in the desert, that might be the least of the show's logical problems. Yes, that's "star" as in "celestial body".
  • Galaxy Rangers, being a Space Western of the same era also rocked this Trope: Tortuna was a Wretched Hive with a few domed cites that Her Travesty didn't nuke into ashes. Ozark was an isolated Lost Colony backwater. Granna and Nebraska were farm worlds. The justification for using the Trope was that large-scale human colonization had only been going on for a decade at most, and sleeper ships only launched about 50 years prior to the series.
  • In the Star Wars: The Clone Wars Movie, Mace Windu says Obi Wan Kenobi captured an entire planet by himself. He probably meant "General Kenobi and the clone fleet under his command", but still that seems like a small amount to take a planet. Either that, or an over reliance on those Droid Command ships (or something similar) like in The Phantom Menace means that a conquered friendly planet could be liberated by a commando unit.
    • During the invasion of Kamino, General Grievous boasted that Kamino had fallen. This is despite much of his fleet getting shot down in orbit without doing similar damage to the Republic fleet, and his crashed troop transports (which was part of the plan) only really managing to get a foothold in Tipoca City. Grievous might have simply been trying to psyche out Kenobi though.
  • The main setting for Loonatics Unleashed is Acmetropolis, a city that's literally the size of a planet.

Notes

  1. The original game's planetary interface was just a generic planet type picture and a set of sliders to control what the planet put its resources towards.
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