My life in outer space

When Worlds Collide – Philip G Wylie, Edwin Balmer (1932)

When Worlds Collide

‘A runaway planet hurtles toward the earth. As it draws near, massive tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions wrack our planet, devastating continents, drowning cities and wiping out millions. In central North America a team of scientists race to build a spacecraft powerful enough to escape the doomed earth. Their greatest threat, they soon discover, comes not from the skies but from other humans.

A crackling plot and sizzling cataclysmic vision have made ‘When Worlds Collide’ one of the most popular and influential end-of-the-world novels of all time.’

Blurb from the 1999 Bison Books edition.

This collaboration from 1932 has been recently reprinted by Bison Books in one of their commemorative editions which includes a foreword by John Varley and the sequel ‘After Worlds Collide’
A courier carrying photographic plates from South African astronomer Professor Bronson to Cole Hendron, his colleague in New York, is offered increasingly alarming sums of money to give exclusive information to various newspapers.
The papers do not have long to wait for the terrible news. A gas giant and an orbiting smaller world are heading in from outer space on collision course with the Earth.
Professor Hendron confirms from the plates that the pair will swing past our world, causing massive earthquakes and tidal waves and then swing round the sun. On the return journey Bronson Alpha will hit the Earth head on.
However, the scientists (hiding behind the not-so-subtle name ‘The League of The Last Days) have a plan to build a ship, carrying a chosen few to the new world of Bronson Beta, which is predicted to break free of its large companion following the collision and take Earth’s place in its orbit.
Most readers will be more familiar with the George Powell movie; a production more or less faithful to the novel, but lacking much of the suspense and sense of wonder of the original.
Despite some examples of what we see from today’s perspective as scientific hokum, the effects of the passing of the large planet are well described and seem accurate enough.
The scenes describing ever-increasing tides invading New York and drowning the streets, leaving the skyscrapers sprouting from the sea are, in an odd sense, quite beautiful. Likewise, the eventual destruction of the Earth viewed from the rocketship by the survivors, provides for the reader a kind of smug satisfaction.
Typically for the times the survivors consist almost entirely of White Americans of the right sort. One South African is of course, white, well built, handsome and courageous. The two remaining aliens – the hero’s Japanese valet and a French scientist – are mere gross caricatures and employed only to provide light relief.
It was however necessary for the writers to attempt to add to the suspense by creating a race against time to produce a metal or alloy capable of containing the forces of a nuclear powered rocket. Eventually this is discovered following the earthquakes and upheaval of the first passing.
A volcanic eruption expelled a molten stream of a hitherto unknown metal from the centre of the earth (an example of ‘unobtainium’) which proves to possess the necessary properties for use in the rocket ship.
There is an attempt to discuss new forms of society and marriage in order that Humanity might multiply on the new world, but the authors never venture far in that direction.


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