Comets

Tagged: Theme

Small, normally icy bodies of our solar system whose appearance during close approach to the Sun can be spectacular owing to heating and outgassing effects producing the coma (a visible local atmosphere surrounding the central nucleus) and long tail of dust and gas blown outward from the sun by the Solar Wind. Owing to this visibility and the regular return of short-period comets – whose home is in the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune (see Outer Planets) – comets have been known since antiquity and regarded as symbolic portents. Several thousand comets have been charted; billions more are thought to exist further out in the Oort cloud, which extends a couple of light-years further on the fringes of the solar system and is the source of long-period comets whose orbital periods can run to millions of years.

Notable early sf treatments of comets include Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" (December 1839 Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine), a pioneering tale of an atmosphere-stripping comet that brings about the End of the World; Jules Verne's Hector Servadac: voyages et aventures à travers le monde solaire (1877 2vols; trans Ellen Elizabeth Frewer as Hector Servadac 1877), in which a comet's impact splits off a chunk of Earth that careers through space and takes its inadvertent passengers on a trip to the Sun and back again; and H G Wells's In the Days of the Comet (19 February-28 March 1906 Daily Chronicle; 1906), where Utopia and free love are ushered in by the benign effects of a comet's tail on the atmosphere of Earth. The Verne novel is homaged in Adam Roberts's Splinter (2007). Robert Heymann's Der Rote Komet (1909; trans Bradley Hall as The Red Comet 2013 chap) echoes the Wells scenario with less benign effects as lust and revolutionary impulses are induced by comet-emitted Rays.

As with Asteroid impacts and as in Poe's already-cited "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion", comets can plausibly threaten various degrees of planetary Disaster. Other early examples are Robert Duncan Milne's pair of linked tales "Into the Sun" (18 November 1882 The Argonaut) and "Plucked from the Burning" (16 December 1882 The Argonaut), and Chauncey Thomas's The Crystal Button; Or Adventures of Paul Prognosis in the Forty-Ninth Century (1891). A cometary impact has wrecked Earth a thousand years before the Ruined Earth action of Jack Bechdolt's The Torch (24 January-21 February 1920 Argosy Weekly; 1948). Such an impact and its detailed aftermath are central to Lucifer's Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, perhaps the best known and most carefully worked out treatment in book form. Further comet-strike disasters with a twentieth-century or later setting include Paul Berna's La dernière aube (1974; trans as The Last Dawn 1977); Jack Williamson's Land's End (1988), whose comet strips away Earth's ozone layer and forces humanity to take refuge Under the Sea; Michael A McCollum's Thunderstrike! (1989); and Susan Beth Pfeffer's This World We Live In (2010), whose comet strike on the Moon causes major Climate Change to Earth. The multiple impacts of the fragmented Comet Shoemaker-Levy on Jupiter in 1994 provided a striking real-life example that led Terry Pratchett, in The Last Continent (1998), to express mock incredulity that a supposedly intelligent species could observe such a catastrophe in its own spatial neighbourhood without any particular concern "because that sort of thing only happens in Outer Space."

Prehistoric SF comet impacts are found in E S Curry's The No-Din: Romance, History and Science of Pre-Historic Races of America and Other Lands (1899), Nelson Bond's Exiles of Time (May 1940 Blue Book; 1949); and Stephen Baxter's Evolution (2002) – powerfully dramatizing the modern theory of the Chicxulub comet impact as an extinction event that ended the reign of Dinosaurs.

Cometary threats to Earth also feature in William Minto's The Crack of Doom: A Novel (August 1885-June 1886 Blackwood's Magazine; 1886 3vols); Camille Flammarion's Scientific Romance La fin du monde – envoi de l'auteur (1893 La Science Illustrée #182-189; 1894; trans anon as Omega: The Last Days of the World 1894) – Flammarion feared that the tail gases of Halley's Comet might in fact poison us; George Weston's His First Million Women (1934; vt Comet "Z" 1934), the passage of whose comet brings a period of global male sterility except for one man (see Clichés); Dennis Wheatley's Sixty Days to Live (1939); Robert Charles Smith's Nightworld (1984; vt The Comet 1985) as by Robert Charles; Marcus Chown and John Gribbin's Double Planet (November 1984 Analog by Gribbin solo; exp 1988); Max Gunther's Doom Wind (1986), where a close approach somehow causes huge and devastating gales; Logan Robinson's Evil Star = Beda (1986); Graham Lord's A Party to Die For (1997); Charles Schaefer's Star of the Sun (1997); and Jack Cohen's and Ian Stewart's Wheelers (2000).

An early Cinema treatment of approaching cometary Disaster is La Fin du Monde (1931; vt The End of the World). The attempt to neutralize an incoming comet with a nuclear strike fails in A Fire in the Sky (1978). Night of the Comet (1984) is a sillier exploitation movie in which cometary Rays rather than any actual impact have bizarrely lethal consequences; in the earlier Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959) such rays cause the titular Monster to put on a growth spurt whenever the offending comet nears Earth. Alien psychic Vampires are discovered on Halley's Comet in Lifeforce (1985), and soon cause havoc on Earth. In more traditional Disaster terms, Meteor (1979) features a threat to Earth resulting from a comet-asteroid collision, while Deep Impact (1998) neatly contrives to have its cake and eat it, with the menacing comet split in two by a Spaceship mission so the larger half can then be heroically destroyed while the smaller still causes a thrilling CGI tsunami. The Videogame Damocles (1990) (see Mercenary) challenges the reader to divert the looming comet Damocles which will otherwise impact the planet on which the game's action begins.

There are several relevant tales of comet exploration. Ray Bradbury's Radio play Leviathan 99 (1968) reworks the Moby Dick theme with the pursuit of a great white comet. In Gregory Benford's and David Brin's Heart of the Comet (1986), an Earth mission explores the interior of a comet which proves to contain variously inimical forms of life. A manned expedition to Halley's Comet features in Arthur C Clarke's 2061: Odyssey Three (1988). The mining of ice from comets is important in Frederik Pohl's Mining the Oort (1992) and – though only as a starting-point – in Alastair Reynolds's Pushing Ice (2005); Pohl's earlier Heechee novel Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) describes an ancient Alien "food factory" mining solar-system comets for all four of the basic CHON elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen) essential to organic life.

Halley's Comet, with its regular return every 75-76 years – last appearing in February 1986, next expected in July 2061 – has achieved Icon status. More than one piece of SF Music (which see) has been inspired by it. Mark Twain, whose 1835 birth and 1910 death coincided with appearances of Halley, correctly remarked that he would "go out with the comet"; his Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909; exp as Report from Paradise 1952) includes Space Flight and a race with a comet. John Calvin Batchelor's The Further Adventures of Halley's Comet (1980), though only tangentially fantastic, features the 1986 return of Halley's Comet plus its metaphorical earthly incarnation. The young protagonist of Diana Wynne Jones's myth-rooted fantasy The Game (2007), amid revelations about the true astronomical nature of her family, discovers herself to be the literal earthly personification of Halley's Comet.

A useful nonfiction work on comets – Halley's in particular – is Comet (1985) by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Isaac Asimov's Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #4: Comets (anth 1984), edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh, is a relevant theme Anthology. [DRL]

see also: Brazil; Ecuador; Keith Folingsby; Brian Herbert; Hollow Earth; Fred Hoyle; Kraftwerk; William H McMasters.

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