A Look Back at WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie

Jack GoblinStarred Page By Jack Goblin, 1st Feb 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Science Fiction & Fantasy

Published in 1933, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is one of the first great science fiction epics. This is a brief look back at what made it so then, and still does today.

The Beginning of the Apocalypse

Recently I reread this, one of the early classic epics of science fiction. And I have to say, even after more than 75 years, it's STILL pretty exciting!

The year is 1933. The U.S. is trying to climb out of the Great Depression. Mussolini's Brown Shirts have taken power in Italy, and the Nazis are on the move in Germany. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, is attempting to forge itself into a Communist paradise no matter what the cost. China, Africa, South America are in the usual turmoil of the times. In other words, the world is proceeding much as normal.

Then something happens which makes all this irrelevant. An astronomer observes a faint spot in the depths of the night sky, where there should be nothing. Scientists all over the world, alerted to this phenomena, examine, investigate, calculate, and come to an unshakeable conclusion: The Earth... is doomed.

Deadly Arrivals from Outer Space

The spots are actually two planets; rogues, one of them as big as Uranus, the other the size of Earth, the smaller in orbit around the other. They are VERY far off, but coming closer. Fast. Untold millions of years ago, some unbelievable cataclysm hurled them out of their home system, and for an unthinkable time they have been traveling through space together, dark, frozen, unchanging, lost and alone.

But now the Sun's gravity has caught them, and they are moving at ever increasing speed, on a plunge into the Solar System... and an unavoidable collision with Earth.

The End of One World; Maybe the Beginning of Another

Several months after the first sighting, the scientists predict, they'll tear by at close range, destroying the Moon and their combined gravity causing inconceivable destruction down below. That will just be the first part, however. Under the influence of the Sun's gravity both of the planets, called Bronson A and B after the astronomer who discovered them, will loop around the Sun and sixteen months later, gigantic Bronson A will slam into the Earth head on. There will be no escape for anyone still on the planet

There is still a chance for life, though! At least, for some. Calculations indicate that the effects of the Sun's gravity, combined with the impacts on Bronson A by the Moon and Earth, will pry Bronson B loose from the larger world's grasp. If all goes well it will settle into an orbit similar to what Earth's was, even as Bronson A goes flying out of the Solar System, never to return.

To Boldly Go...

If, therefore, spaceships capable of carrying people can be built in this short period of time, lift off from Earth just before it is destroyed, travel the tens of thousands of miles to B, and land safely; and if B, warmed by the Sun out of its deep freeze, is capable of supporting life and not too disrupted by leaving its orbit around A, then the human race can go on. It is a long shot, an undertaking greater than anything Man has ever attempted (especially with 1930's technology), and only a few hundred will survive, if that. But with no other option, people - some people, at least - get very busy.

Two of the giants of early science fiction, Balmer and Wylie do a remarkable job in telling this highly imaginative story. Remarkable and realistic; there's no miracle cure, no last minute pseudo-scientific save. From the initial announcement made by the scientists of their discovery, which stuns and confuses the public and politicians and financial markets, to the final desperate efforts - not all of them successful - by several nations to launch ships, the science and psychology rings largely true, and the tension is almost non-stop.

Imaging the End of the World

Especially good is the description of Earth's first encounter with Bronson A and the devastation that unleashes. Both immediately - forty-eight hours when mountains dance and are born and die overnight, tidal waves sweep shorelines clean for miles inland, winds blow at never before imagined speeds, and darkness and death fill the air - and afterwards, with 80% of humanity dead, continents destroyed, air and water poisoned, civilization destroyed in many places and the few pockets left, under threat of attack from raiders and the desperate needy. Few later books would be as thorough or intelligent in thinking through what such a close cosmic encounter would entail. Or what the consequences would be. When Worlds Collide IS an epic, which has influenced science fiction and literature ever since.

Balmer and Wylie do make a few missteps. They were off in the assumption that atomic energy could be easily controlled and used to propel rockets. Given that this was written only a year after an atom had first been split, that is understandable. And some of their other science is iffy, especially their description of what space travel would feel like. Although they anticipate that some would be devastated by the lack of gravity and fall prey to motion sickness. They do better considering what would be needed to move 100 people through space from one world to another. As well as what supplies and equipment to take to set up a viable colony. Especially on a world that even if it has water and breathable air, will have been virtually sterilized by intense cold.

O Brave New World, That has Such People in It.

Not just equipment and supplies, though; what sort of PEOPLE to take. Only the best and the brightest, the healthiest young men and women and the smartest scientists and workers can go, those who will give the colony and the human race the best chance of survival and growth. This of course requires absolute hardheartedness and self discipline on the part of those in charge and those chosen. Balmer and Wylie, though, make only a few brief mentions of the emotional difficulties and costs of being called on to leave friends and family behind to certain death, or of having to be purely scientific in deciding who will live and who will die.

Also, to those with 2015 sensibilities, the world of 1933 can be a strange place. There's subtle and not so subtle racism and sexism, although the authors actually struggle against the attitudes of their times somewhat successfully. There are also some political and religious ideas that might raise eyebrows these days.

That aside, however, those interested in science fiction, and the effects of extraordinary events on humanity, might want to take some time to read When Worlds Collide. It contains a great deal of both, intelligently presented.

Media Source: NASA and Everyday Science and Mechanics by way of Wikimedia Commons


Book, Disaster, Edwin Balmer, End Of The World, Philip Wylie, Science Fiction

Meet the author

author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


Add a comment
Can't login?