To look at the astronomical statistics, you would think that planet Earth is a sitting duck. In our teensy immediate neighborhood of the galaxy alone, there are over 14,000 asteroids zipping about, not to mention over 100 near-Earth comets. Asteroids of over one kilometer in diameter have hit the Earth, it is approximated, twice every million years during the planet’s history; those of five kilometers, every 20 million years. Every 2,000 years, it has been said, a chunk of space matter collides with or explodes over the Earth causing a 10-megaton blast, such as the one (size unknown) that fell over Siberia on June 30, 1908 – the so-called Tunguska event – which flattened almost 800 square miles of forest. And these are all relatively small pieces of whizzing space rock, mind you; comparative pebbles. What if another PLANET were to bring good ol’ Earth into its crosshairs? Worse still, what if a DOUBLE planetary system were to come swinging into our immediate vicinity? Well, that is precisely the setup of Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer’s now-classic sci-fi novel of 1933, When Worlds Collide. The novel originally appeared as a six-part serial in the hugely popular Blue Book Magazine, starting in the September ’32 issue (when Balmer was 49 and Wylie was 30) and concluding in the February ’33. For such a seminal story, it now seems surprising that When Worlds Collide was never given the cover illustration on any of those six issues; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Leopard Men copped the cover spots on the first two, while various stories of Arabia, Western action, Yukon (?) fur traders and the Far East accounted for the other four. I had never read the novel until just recently but had seen the 1951 filmization; a slow-moving affair, as I recall, with only so-so special FX. Fortunately, the novel is anything but dull, and offers up a spectacular story with telling details that dazzle the mind’s eye.
In the book, a South African astronomer named Sven Bronson makes a startling discovery: Two rogue planets, that had been ripped from their own sun untold millions of years earlier, are now hurtling toward the neighborhood of our solar system. Even worse, while the smaller of the two, the Earth-sized world dubbed Bronson B, is projected to bypass our world by a safe margin, the larger, Bronson A (a gas giant that is actually 12 times the size of Earth), would seem to be on a direct collision course! As the novel progresses, we observe the approaching disaster and ultimate cataclysm through the eyes of several central characters: Cole Hendron, America’s greatest astrophysicist and engineer, who works with Bronson on a means of evacuating some 100 of Earth’s best and brightest specimens, via rocket ship, to the promising haven of Bronson B; Eve, his daughter, and a brilliant scientist in her own right; Tony Drake, a stockbroker, all-American man of action, and Eve’s hopeful fiancé; and Dave Ransdell, a South African pilot and adventurer, who flies Bronson’s discoveries to Hendron in the States and stays on at the scientist’s rocket base, only to become Tony’s rival for Eve’s affections. Eventually, Bronson A & B do make their initial pass of Earth, resulting in worldwide earthquakes, volcanoes, massive flooding, the release of poisonous gases from the Earth’s core, a general reconfiguration of the land masses, and universal panic and breakdown of society. But can Hendron and his 1,000 followers prepare their 100-person-capacity rocket ship before the so-called “Bronson bodies” return, and wipe out planet Earth in toto?
I alluded to the spectacular nature of Wylie & Balmer’s story just before, and I use that word advisedly; When Worlds Collide surely does provide much in the way of spectacle. The authors describe the initial devastation of our planet’s surface very well, with copious and convincing detail. After the first approach of the Bronson bodies, Ransdell and two others go on a wide-ranging reconnaissance of the U.S. by airplane, and the reader is thus privy to the great and general destruction. We see the ghost town that was Chicago, completely killed off by toxic gas; the riots that sweep Pittsburgh; and the inundated Eastern seaboard, completely washed over by 750-foot-high waves. During the Bronson bodies’ second approach, we watch, from aboard that rocket ship in space, as our fair planet hurtles toward Bronson A, turning plastic and egg-shaped under the gravitational stress, and the authors make us feel what it must be like to have a world drop down on our heads and grind us to atoms. The book contains any number of highly suspenseful set pieces, as well, including Manhattan’s initial flooding, which Tony and Eve observe from a downtown rooftop; the attack that a famished and desperate mob of 10,000 makes on Hendron’s compound, during which many hundreds are killed; the scientists’ desperate attempt to come up with an alloy that might withstand the dreadful heat of their rocket’s atomic reaction tubes; and the spaceflight and landing on Bronson B itself.
But the book is not solely concerned with mere spectacle, and its characters take time out to reflect on such matters as the new moral code that might have to be established on Bronson B (can the convention of marriage still be valid when a woman must procreate as often as possible, and with as many men as possible, in the name of humanity’s survival?) and whether or not God has deliberately planned to wipe the bulk of humanity away, as He did before the Flood (why send a planet clear across the universe to destroy Earth, while offering the possibility of salvation via Bronson B?). The authors’ writing style is often elegant, with references to such varied sources as the Bible, Omar Khayyam and English physicist James Hopwood Jeans. Wylie & Balmer take the time to let us get to know the main players in their story, ensuring that we stay invested in them, and when one of them is injured, or MIA, or endangered, we worry. As I mentioned, the book has more on its mind than just a panoramic catalogue of awesome destruction.
Writing of the book in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle mentions that it is a “now dated story which was popular in its time and has been influential,” and to be fair, the novel does indeed strike the modern reader as dated in some instances. For one thing, it is set in the early ‘30s, and as we now know … well, the Earth was NOT decimated by a giant gas planet back in 1932. The book also makes reference to such “modern-day, in-the-news” items as Stalin and Mussolini, Broadway actors in their “furred collars,” the Farm Relief Bill and Prohibition. Drake’s valet, Kyto, is repeatedly referred to as a “Jap servant,” and Uranus is mentioned as having a diameter of 40,000 miles (we now know that it is more like 31,000 miles). As a lover of Golden Age sci-fi, I have never been bothered overmuch by these instances of datedness, however; they come with the territory. What concerns me more are some instances of fuzzy writing that crop up occasionally. For example, during the first set of cataclysms, “Gases, steam and ashes welled from ten thousand vents into the Earth’s atmosphere. The sun went out, the stars were made visible…” Huh? Shouldn’t the stars be made INvisible? Also, when Prof. Bronson is described as having “tactile hands,” what does THAT mean? That he has a sense of touch? I believe the authors were going for something like “flexible” or “supple” hands here, but who knows?
Anyway, I’m only carping now. When Worlds Collide was a pretty significant achievement for its authors, and again, a highly influential and seminal one. The book is a deserved classic. At its conclusion, Hendron’s rocket and crew lie safely on the long-frozen and now sun-awakened world of Bronson B, unaware if any of Earth’s other possible ships made it safely away. The 100 survivors have a new world to explore and millennia of humanity to preserve; it is truly a cliff-hanging conclusion, and the reader cannot help but wonder what might happen next. Fortunately, an answer WAS provided in this book’s direct follow-up sequel, After Worlds Collide (1934), and that is where this reader is surely headed next…