It is often said that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12″. It is certainly the case that I remember fondly many books that I discovered at that age; that was in the middle of my Junior High career, and I had been introduced the year before to Doc Smith and Christopher Anvil. Subsequently, I decided to start looking for more science fiction, and went into the library of Shaker Junior High to start looking. Having no better idea, I started looking for books that caught my eye starting at the beginning of the alphabet, and almost immediately saw this huge, hardcover book under the “Bs”, and on the cover was an image of people staring through a viewport as something huge struck the Earth.
This was the omnibus edition of When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Originally published in 1933, only a few years after Doc Smith had published The Skylark of Space, this book is one of the true forefathers of the modern disaster novel – and outdoes most of its successors easily.
Simply outlined, South African astronomer Sven Bronson discovers a pair of rogue planets, Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta entering our solar system – on a course which will at the least severely disrupt the orbit of Earth, and possibly result in a direct collision. It doesn’t take long to determine that in fact the result will be a direct collision of Bronson Alpha – a small gas giant roughly the size of Neptune – with Earth.
However, the orbital mechanics in question also show that there is one tiny ray of hope: Bronson Beta, the companion of Alpha, is almost identical to Earth, possibly even habitable… and there is a small chance that the collision of Earth and Bronson Alpha could result in separating Beta from Alpha and leaving Beta in a livable orbit.
So begins a desperate race to design, build, and crew a giant ship – an Ark – to bring enough people and other living things to another world to, just possibly, let humanity and earthly life survive.
When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide is of course a product of its times, and while it does have a considerably greater proportion of women present for the main action than was the norm (as in, more than zero), it still certainly has various aspects of sexism, racism, and so on present (though it makes quite creditable efforts to work against many of these aspects). It is, however, still a powerfully written and often startlingly well-thought out novel of the approaching – and eventually actual – end of the world.
The first novel covers many events and phenomena not explored well in other stories until considerably later. The cataclysmic consequences of even a near pass by a large celestial body are depicted in terrifying detail, as are the societal consequences of learning that the world is doomed. Those attempting to build the Ark – with its very limited capacity – not only must solve the basic technological problems of how to actually create a vessel that can lift thousands of tons and cross the interplanetary void, but also how to prevent desperate mobs from first finding, and then taking over or destroying their camp.
The Arks and the selection of their cargoes are also gone into in some detail, showing that the writers thought very carefully about the challenges of settling a world that might once have held life but is almost certainly dead now – taking into consideration the biological processes that make soil, the need for diverse plant and insect life,and so on. These details give a solidity and conviction to the novel which would have been lost without such attention and effort on the part of the authors.
The Arks are, of course, powered by atomic energy; it’s noteworthy that the novels were published in 1933 and 1934 – years before nuclear power would be anything more than a theoretical possibility. Similarly, we have only recently confirmed that there are, in fact, planetary bodies wandering through the cosmos, beyond the influence of any sun. Such “rogue” planets were theorized off and on, but as far as I know When Worlds Collide was the first use of such in fiction.
The politics in the novel reflect their era… and foreshadow one, as well. While the villains of the second novel are depicted as derived from the Soviet Union, the alliance includes Germans and Japanese and the outcome certainly echoes events which would unfold in the near future of the writers with the rise of Nazi Germany, something that had just started to become a reality at the time.
Overall, I still find these novels highly readable, despite their occasional purple prose and obviously dated element. They were some of the most influential novels of their time and still retain much of their power. If you’ve a taste for old-fashioned science fiction, this is one of the best!