Last night’s H.G. Wells discussion careened into the sun! This essay-style short story (published in The Graphic magazine, December 1897) sets the tone for the whole “catastrophe-from-space” impact genre of sci-fi (Armageddon, Deep Impact, Hale-Bopp, etc.). The idea that a rogue celestial body could blindside the earth in it’s orbit has been a consistent cultural and astronomical concern for over 1000 years.
When Halley’s comet made it’s 1857 pass by earth, 40 years before “The Star” was published, earthlings were terrified because many were sure it would crash into us and tear the planet asunder.
In fact, just 13 years after this story was published, Halley’s comet made it’s 1910 pass by the earth. Using new instruments, astronomers discovered a poisonous gas, called cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. Sensational panic spread that the cyanogen would kill all life on earth.
Planetologists and cosmologists theorize about impact events all the time. It’s an integral component of theories explaining the formation of the solar system and the planets. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab runs a program tracking and documenting Near Earth Objects. In fact, last month a tiny asteroid disintegrated in our atmosphere above southern Africa. And that is what happens to most objects that collide with earth; they’re too small or fragile to make it through our atmosphere. But several do make it through. As far as the ones that crash into the oceans, we never hear about them.
We were reminded this evening that H.G. Wells contributed significantly to the zeitgeist of science and science fiction culture. Like it or not, this white Englishman was a good writer, and brings a lot to the table. He strongly believed that literacy in the physical sciences was the pathway to the betterment of humanity.
Chris: Early cli-fi. A solid piece of apocalyptic fiction.
Wells was born poor and won a writing contest when he was a young boy. But he wrote well enough to carry it off and make a lifelong vocation of writing. In his lifetime he became world famous for his journalism, fiction, and science fiction. Though today he is remembered exclusively for his science fiction. [The Time Machine, War Of The Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island Of Dr. Moreau] The scientists of his era credited him with the scientific imagination that would point the way for actual scientific endeavors. “How smart will the robots be, Herbert?”
David: He’s a Darwinist when Darwinism was new, and he’s explicitly political and socialist. He’s using art to move the needle of public opinion. That shift to ‘human beings are not important, you’re not divinely created, so get used to it.’ That was an excruciating thing for Victorian England to wrap it’s mind around.
Chris: It’s inconceivable! [in Princess Bride voice]
David: It’s the anti- “everything-happens-for-a-reason” story.
From the Wells bio in the Anthology:
“But Wells found such stunts from his rival [Jules Verne] annoying and was less interested in whether a mecha-elephant could actually clomp and clank across the earth than in carthing the effect of mass societal changes in technology and biology.”
David: To me that sounds like the major dichotomy in sci-fi today.
Like Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom.” But in Poe the protagonist uses his scientific knowledge to save the day. In Wells’ story, we’re sitting ducks.
C: Well we’ve had maelstrom, let’s have femaelstrom.
David: Why are human beings driven to stories about these incredibly hard tales? Why do we get hung up on disaster narratives? Especially if Freud said that people are basically motivated by pleasure – then why this romance with catastrophe? “Nature doesn’t care about you. You’re on your own. It’s just you and your ingenuity and reason.”
Nowell: Maybe to have the experience without the danger. Like catharsis in Greek tragedy. The Greeks had entire festivals for that stuff.
Chris: An Ozymandias quality, that everything falls apart, but it comes back together better. It’s almost a culling, and Wells says the only way to get better is by enduring the cullings.
Nowell: It’s like an antidote to hubris.
David: As if you could get around it.
Suhail: People get very touchy when you apply scientific observations about the animal kingdom to human beings.
Chris: Just try denying your animal nature.
David: Did you know that Wells was one of the authors behind the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?
Chris: No, I didn’t.
David: And he visited with Roosevelt, and then Stalin, within 10 days of each other, as WWII was waning.
Chris: A modern day socialist Thomas Jefferson.
Chris: All of his depictions of people outside of Europe are racist and patronizing, BUT-
David: -but they are represented.
Chris: BUT they do move the story forward. Also, he put the worst damage to the earth in India. Death on a grand scale happens outside of Europe, and outside of Christendom.
Suhail: And Greenland and Iceland become verdant paradises. Also, think about India in relation to England in 1897, in the heyday of the colonial grip.
Suhail: I didn’t appreciate that it was all an essay. No dialogue, no main character.
David: It’s a long pullback – to Mars. The last paragraph, showing what the Martians think of our catastrophe and (page 9) “how small the vastness of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.”
Nowell: It’s a pullback to Mars, that’s brilliant. The whole story was an intro to a much bigger narrative. That first-to-last paragraph about how people live after the catastrophe, that seems like where the story starts.
Suhail: But that first-to-last paragraph was written in the same distant fleeting tone as the rest of the story. Still, I see what you mean. He wrote the story from a few million miles away. And the last sentence makes it on purpose.
David: The Simpsons did a whole episode dramatizing this story, where Bart sees the star growing in the sky.
Suhail & Nowell: Ha, I gotta see that.
Regarding the lack of characters:
David: The whole world is the protagonist. A cosmic force is the antagonist. That’s Wells’ profession, his actual job – the great imaginer. And the scientists came to him for imaginings of technologically driven social changes of the future.
Highly recommended by Chris: Two books by David Zindell “The Ignorant Gods” (Beautiful and strange. All the cetaceans are sentient, and humans are a problem. One of the killer whales wants to communicate with humans) and even better, “Neverness” (which everyone should read) Zindell is a great unsung American writer. Designed to be read out loud.
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!
P. 1 Waxes poetic about the size and scope of the solar system and a tiny observation of an object approaching Neptune. Hardly anyone notices, especially if they didn’t know science.
P. 2 The light starts changing in the sky. Observatories are abuzz. “And where science has not reached, men stared and feared…these firey signs in the Heavans.” The object strikes Neptune and the two celestial masses become one flaming almost-star. And it’s growing.
P. 3 “It is Nearer.” “It is nearer.” Ominous. A tour of the world remarking on the event. This page contains the most dialogue in the entire story (all packed into a couple paragraphs). And some romantic and evocative images that work best in brevity, like the African lovers in the can break calling the new star their own.
P. 4 The “master mathematician” makes his decree, “Man has lived in vain.” “What was that about ‘lived in vain.’?” The new star is coming for us. It’s falling toward the Sun and it’s going to hit us along the way. It’s still growing. The air is heating.
P. 5 Nearly daytime at night. “In the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.” Religious panic spreads. Bells tolling. End of days hubbub. “Throughout Christendom a somber murmur hung in the keen air” “and this murmurous tumult grew to a clangor in the cities.” People fleeing blindly en masse, leaving land for the seas, in the hopes of surviving the floods afloat. Noah’s arks everywhere.
P. 6 The star is getting faster, and brighter, and hotter. Unprecedented natural disasters are foretold. But despite these panics, 9 out of 10 people are either ignorant or trying to ignore it and go about their business. Comets had come near us before, and we did just fine. Remember the year 1000. Precedence and common sense were against a collision. There were still plenty of fold around to laugh at “the master mathematician.” Then the laughter ceased.
P.7 The heat brings thaws and devastating floods (global warming stuff! 🙂 The gravitational tides bring tidal waves and volcanic eruptions and hurricanes and thunderstorms. Even the snow in the Himalayas melts away.
P. 8 The star gets faster, hotter, brighter, closer. People still on land swarm to high ground, packed like sardines. The star, towing the black disc of Neptune, finally crashes into the sun, missing earth. The world is covered in clouds (TJ & Tosc style) BUT “the thunder and lighting wove a garment around the world;” “a downpour of rain as men had never before seen.” Volcanoes became mudslides and “the earth littered like a storm-worn beach.”
P. 9 “But the star had passed.” People could now creep back to the ruins. A new brotherhood among men, preserving the lost knowledge, “the saving of laws and books and machines.” Iceland and Greenland become green and lush places. Mankind migrates toward the hotter poles (global warming). Life will become impossible near the equator.
Last paragraph: The Martian astronomers observing the scene on earth. “One wrote, ‘it is astonishing what a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained.” “how small the vastness of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.”