All those other apocalyptic books with their puny viruses and piddling nuclear wars have nothing on When Worlds Collide, which is about the smashing of Earth itself into jagged little pieces.
Or it would be — if physics respected the three-act structure.
The book begins with the man who is carrying the fate of Mankind in his briefcase: photographic plates of two large planetary objects — one about the size of Neptune, one Earth-sized — that are on a collision course with the third planet in our little solar system. Yeah, that’s us. And ain’t nothin in the world can stop them. So what is going to happen to our planet is, to coin a phrase, written in the stars from page one. Well, at least there’ll be no more ads for Viagra.
The story — the one with some reasonable margin for error — is about the men and women who refuse to accept this fate. It turns out, you see, that the smaller body is not only about the same size as Earth, but also very Earth-like. If their calculations are correct, it will survive the collision of the other two planets and take up an orbit of its own about the Sun. So it’s just a matter of building a ship that can make the crossing. There’s just one catch: the ship envisioned can only house about a hundred people.
According to the blurb on the back of my mid-seventies paperback, this caveat “touch[s] off a savage struggle among the world’s most powerful men for the million-to-one chance of survival.” You’d think that it would, wouldn’t you? But, if you were anything other than a blurb writer, you’d probably want to read the book first before announcing it to the world. The fact is, no such thing ever happens.
In fact, this is one of the curious things about this novel. I could also have said “quaint.” “Charming” is another matter. It has that old-timey faith in science and scientists as the saviors of our world. It comes by this honestly — it was published in 1933 — but it makes, at times, for some…interesting…developments. For instance, government plays no role in the building of the spaceship. It is conceived by Dr. Cole Hendron (whose honorific is of the Ph, not the M, variety), and he alone gathers about him the people he believes he needs to succeed. He alone will decide who goes and who stays. Meanwhile, the President of the United States rallies the populace to die another day.
That most of “us” have several opportunities to die is determined by the fact that the invading planets make two passes of the Earth, not just one. The first is a near miss. But even a near miss, with the combined mass of Neptune and Earth, is catastrophic. Tidal waves, earthquakes, floods, volcanic activity — the world is torn apart. Well, all but torn apart; the actual rending comes later. In between, reduced in large part to barbarism, the remaining population finds more traditional ways to kill each other.
This is great stuff.
Keeping the home fires burning are Tony Drake and the chief’s daughter, Eve. But theirs is a romance with serious complications. If only a hundred people can survive, how can they justify monogamy? Tony, a simpler soul than Eve, thinks he can justify it just fine; Eve is more realistic. Enter David Ransdell, a real man’s man, whose appreciation of Eve’s charms is not altogether unrequited.
Flipping my paperback over, we find on the front cover the bold statement: “America’s most famous science fiction classic that ranks with 1984 and Brave New World.” Except that this book is largely forgotten and the other two are still considered classics. This, I’m here to tell you, isn’t quite fair. Literarily, no, When Worlds Collide isn’t in the same league. In terms of its vision, though, and its remarkable evocation of utter disaster, it actually is. This is a book in which shit not only happens, it obliterates practically everything.
I’m going to see the 1951 movie later today, but I can already tell you, if ever there was a story ripe for a remake, this is it. And it could be glorious.