In the first of what we hope will be many guest posts by Gollancz’s very talented authors, multi-award-winning author and SF Gateway Advisory Board member, Stephen Baxter, offers his thoughts on Norman Spinrad’s 1966 solar disaster novel, The Solarians . . .
In my collaboration with Sir Arthur C Clarke, Sunstorm (2005) a disorderly sun threatens Earth. The misbehaviour of the sun featured in many of Clarke’s works, beginning with ‘Rescue Party’ (1946), and including his novel Songs of Distant Earth (1986) in which mankind has a thousand-year warning and scatters to the stars.
The first sfnal depictions of solar disasters concerned the running down of the sun’s power. The best guesses of the nineteenth-century physicists up to Lord Kelvin were that the sun was powered by gravitational contraction, which would last only a few million years. An expiring Kelvin-esque sun is memorably mentioned in a catalogue of possible ends of the world in Camille Flammarion‘s Omega: The Last Days of the World (1893). The dying sun is also glimpsed by HG Wells‘ Time Traveller in The Time Machine (1895).
In the early twentieth century it was realised that nuclear fusion, the sun’s true power source, should enable it to shine for thousands of millions of years, and concern about the longevity of the sun was replaced by speculation about what might happen if it misbehaves – as in Clarke’s stories. Usually, there’s nothing to do but run for it. In JT McIntosh‘s One in Three Hundred (1954) a brightening sun ruins Earth but brings Mars alive. So a fleet of life-ships is hastily assembled, and the inexperienced ‘lieutenants’ who will pilot them are ordered to select the ‘one in three hundred’ who will be spared the fire. Here’s a good book by a Scottish writer now mostly forgotten – one for the Gateway?
But Spinrad’s The Solarians (1966) is an exception, for here humanity actually causes an instability in the sun. We are losing a war of attrition with the relentlessly logical Dulgaari. But the Dulgaari fleet is duped into entering the solar system, ‘Fortress Sol’ – where it is vaporised by an artificial Nova Sol, ‘like a swarm of moths caught in a flamethrower’ (chapter 12). The scenes of the destruction of an evacuated Earth are affecting.
Maybe it’s a surprise there aren’t more sun-centred works of sf. Perhaps we moderns are too blasé about the sun. Certainly our understanding of the sun exceeds that of our ancestors, who worshipped it as a god, but we are just as dependent on its power.