Friday, January 1, 2021

When Worlds Collide

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I watched the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn while reading about Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta approaching Earth. 

Good science fiction depends on good science. The narrative starts out strong. By the climax, I was less sanguine about the empirical evidence and theoretical explanations. All of the characters are men, except the daughter of the physicist; and she is named Eve. The hero, Ivy League athlete Tony Drake, came before Ivy League athlete Flash Gordon (1935). Pluto had been discovered in 1930. So, the fact that unknown planets exist beyond our system was common news. What if one entered our solar system? What if we knew that it would destroy the Earth? 

Paperback Library Edition
J. B. Lippincott 1932

The world of 1932 is not unfamiliar, though some of the cultural norms were best left in the past. It was interesting to discover that atomic power and space travel were presented as attainable. The scientists who have formed the League of Last Days hide their activities with phony press releases about making progress smashing the atom. (Ultimately, the scientists do develop a fission engine to power their spaceship.) According to Eve Hendron: “We could send a rocket to the moon to-day if it would do any good, if anyone could possibly live on the moon when he got there.” Whatever its flaws this book may have created the disaster genre. Certainly, it was echoed in Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (1977). 


Eve Hendron is presented as a computer. She performs calculations, reducing the data from photographic plates for her father, industrial physicist Dr. Cole Hendron. To me, that indicates that the work of the women computers at the Harvard Observatory was known to the common culture. She explains to Tony that with three observations, an orbit can be plotted, adding that they have hundreds of determinations and know much about the planets. After all, she continued, “Tony, you remember how precise the forecast was in the last eclipse that darkened New England. The astronomers not only foretold to a second when it would begin and end, but they described the blocks and even the sides of streets in towns that would be in shadow. And their error was less than twenty feet.” 


From that scene the book tracks another theme, the religious implications of the complete destruction of the world by one planet coupled with the chance for rescue (if not salvation) by flying to another planet. The characters, especially Tony Drake, often speak reflectively (though inconclusively) about the theological impact of doomsday. The chances of this event happening were astronomically against it. The planets had to have to passed close enough and at the right velocities to be captured by the Sun and then not merely fall into solar orbits but strike the Earth. Moreover, when Bronson Alpha obliterates our planet, it gains enough velocity to leave the system, which I found difficult to accept because of the energy considerations. But that’s how miracles work: if you could understand them, they would be mundane, not be miracles.


Also miraculous was the release from the Earth’s mantle of a metal that could withstand the forces of atomic energy. The want of such a metal destroyed the French spaceship which fell back to Earth when its engines melted. The Americans believe that they alone survived in two ships. Part Two, After Worlds Collide, is an epic conflict against the communists and fascists who also succeeded to Bronson Beta. It is a brave new world on several levels. As in Huxley’s myth (also 1932), the scientists here decide that monogamy is counterproductive. With their small gene pool of 100 to 200 survivors, they decide early on to make serial mating mandatory.  

1951: George Pal Productions

I believe that the collapse of the world and its regeneration along radical lines was a result the Great War that destroyed the 19th century. Optimism was dead. I have on my shelf a find from a library sale, The Marvelous Record of the Closing Century by Charles Morris, 1899, American Book and Bible House, Philadelphia. I can hear its tone in contemporaneous works on more focused topics by William Graham Sumner, James Ford Rhodes, Charles Beard, and Henry Cabot Lodge. Today, it is derided as “the Whig theory of history” that social evolution is social progress toward liberalism, democracy, and globalism, of trade and commerce replacing war and conquest. For me the hallmark of that is The Romance of Commerce by H. Gordon Selfridge, 1918, John Lane the Bodley Head, London. 


The wars of the 20th century may be ending. We thought they were over when communism fell. In 1990, we underestimated the God that did not fail, the actual religionists, the Muslims, Hindus, and Christians who refuse to enter the brave new world. The return (and eventual exit) of 21st century new nationalists—Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, among too many others—was predicted in another science fiction work, Islands in the Net (1988) by Bruce Sterling. 


I had a hard time finding this book. My city library no longer shelves it. One ABE Books seller cancelled an order. You can tell from the cover art that this was a late 1960s paperback reprint. I read it pretty hard, making a lot margin notes and tags to longer notes in the front. I found a lot here to enjoy, consider, and reflect on.


Paragraphs of narrative have the conspiracy of scientists planning the biology and ecology of their next home. The sociology of science is a continuing thread. It was also telling that in 1932, the wealthy had not been affected by the crash of 1929. What we now call The Great Depression actually had not yet begun—and I have other facts to support that claim. They even mention in passing the relative value of gold versus common stocks during times of panic. Market panics pass. This one did not.


Previously on Necessary Facts

Forbidden Planet 

Firefly: Fact and Value Aboard “Serenity” 

Star Trek: Discovery and the Conflict of Values 

Armadillocon 41 


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