Tuesday, 12 December 2017

"Mors Solis" (1905/2017)

[Note: this speculative aggregation consists of two things. As noted in this post, Wells wrote the preface to Gabriel Tarde's science-fiction novel Fragment d'Histoire Future (1896) when it appeared in English translation as Underground Man in 1905. Tarde treats his premise, namely what happens when the sun abruptly stops shining, by turns satirically and spiritually, and though (as you'll see if you check out my earlier post) Wells liked the novel, he also noted, at some length, that he would have handled this premise in a very different way to Tarde. To that end his preface includes 800-words or so of Wellsian prose, sketching how he might have taken things. This post takes those words, adds in a few pieces of filler in the same style, and bodges the whole into a sort-of new Wellsian short. About a third of what follows is the Wellsian ipsissima verba; the rest is me. It's not jolly, but then, a story like ‘The Star’ (1897) shows us Wells wasn't always jolly. I might add: water ice (of course) is colourless, as is nitrogen ice, although oxygen ice has a blue tint.]

That the idea of solar extinction had never occurred to the astronomers of the world can, perhaps, be ascribed to the peculiar nature of faith as it manifests in scientific circles. It is quite different to the old religious and spiritual iterations of belief. The medieval monk trembled always on the very edge of the Great Day of His Wrath, the peasant greeted each dawn as an unlooked for renewal. But then came science, and we saw for the first time in human history that our cosmos had existed for billions of years, and would exist for billions more. Star-gazers determined that galaxies were, by the standard of the human lifetime, eternal. The new faith preached our mortal impermanence as against the permanent solidity of the universe.

A faith only half correct …

The unprecedented increase in sunspot observed across the globe through the winter of 1905-06 was not greatly remarked upon outside the astronomical community; and when the incidence of those unexplained blotches returned to a statistically normal solar deviation in the spring the matter receded to the notes and queries columns of the Harvard Astronomical Review and the Greenwich Sidereal Recorder. None recognised in it a presage of what was to come.

The celestial spectorgaphic observatory on the flanks of the Pico de Orizaba mountain was the first to detect the alterations in colour. A distinct reddening, or intensification of the orange hue, was announced to the world, and reported in the London Times. People treated it as a curio, and nothing more. For after all: how could the sun fail us?

Soon enough, though, it needed no specialist astronomical apparatus to detect the change in the solar hue. A darkening orange-y redness became explicit in daytime, and shadows acquired a strange, greeny-blue glaucous quality; and sunsets spread a richer red-violet in wide bands across the western horizon. Yet even at this late stage the populations of the world were curious rather than afeared, waiting only for the more familiar colouration to reassert itself.

The alteration gathered pace, and red waxed crimson and magenta, purpled like a bruise and turned a blue first bright then murky. The whole world gloomed, indistinct under a violet sky, shadows faintly yellow, finally awoke to its doom. There were riots in France and China. A millennial cult oversaw mass suicides in the United States and in Russia people painted themselves in woad in imitation, or hoped-for propitiation.

Soon enough the sun was seized in a mysterious, chill grip and flickering from hue to hue in the skies of a darkened, amazed and terrified world—images of stupendous majesty and splendour. Human civilisation, all that it had achieved, everything it offered by way of comfort and possibility, became a vista of darkened cities and indistinct, multitudinous, fleeing crowds, of wide country-sides of chill dismay, of beasts silent with the fear of this last eclipse, and bats and night-birds abroad amidst the lost daylight creatures and fluttering perplexed on noiseless wings.

And with insolent suddenness the sun’s light winked out forever. The eons long battle between night and day was abruptly concluded, darkness the victor.

The abrupt sight of the countless stars made visible by this great abdication drove crowds of people lamentingly onto the streets and out upon the darkened fields and hills. Many more hid themselves away in houses and cellars, and huddled beside candles and gas-lights. The removal of its one mighty source of heat and light seemed to stun the weather of the world, and hold the whole poised, pendant over the abyss.

A man ran through the streets, carrying a flaming torch—a tall man, hatless, his high forehead like a shield, running, his coattails flapping like pennants in the breeze, crying ‘it is but an eclipse! Only an eclipse! It will soon pass—the sun will soon return!’ The darkness swallowed his words, and then swallowed him: sprinting away from us, knees high, in a shrinking sphere of glimmering red, until he could be seen no longer.

Climactic systems that had pulsed like a gigantic heart, running on the eons-long alteration of night’s cool and day’s warmth, shuddered and convulsed. The thickening of the sky to stormy masses of cloud hid again the stars; the soughing of a World-wide wind grew to a global gale that drowned out all other sounds.

First little flakes and then the drift and driving of the multiplying snow hurled itself against the dim illumination of lamps, of windows, of street lights lit untimely. In every city of man, such people as dared venture outside did so against the shiver of the cold, the clutching of hands at coats and wraps, the blind hurrying to shelter and the comfort of a fire—the blaze of fires. Here and there were glmpses of the red-lit faces about the fires, the furtive glances at the wind-tormented windows, heads bent to ignore the furious knocking of those other strangers barred out, for, ‘we cannot have everyone in here.’

And then the darkness deepened, and the cries without died away, and then nothing was left but the shift and falling of the incessant snow from roof to ground.

Every now and then the disjointed talk would cease altogether, and in the stillness might be heard the faint yet insistent creeping sound of the snowfall. ‘There is a little food down-stairs,’ one said. ‘The servants must not eat it. We had better lock it upstairs. We may be here—for days.’

Icicles along the eaves and fell clattering like broken glass before the freezing gale.

Bootless now to talk of days passing, of weeks or months—but with each rotation of the dark world the temperature, lacking its diurnal resuscitation, dropped further. Snows fell across the whole world and the coasts of every continent were hemmed now with intricate border of icesheets and icebergs, like the embroidery on a doily. Soon enough it became too cold for snow, and soon enough after that—it came with a suddenness upon the few who still survived—the atmosphere itself began to freeze and fall as huge, blue-white flakes: nitrogen snow and oxygen snow.

Our race behaved just as any single man behaves when death takes him suddenly through some cardiac failure. It felt very queer, it wanted to sit down and alleviate its strange discomfort, it said something stupid or inarticulate, made an odd gesture or so, and then it flickered out. Whole days were wasted in inanity. At eighteen sites around the world there came together the precious combination of organisational determination, a body of human beings—usually a military battalion of company—still ready to be commanded, and the physical resources to seize, or at least to attempt to seize, the moments. At a dozen coal- and gold-mines, determined men and women appropriated stores of food, clothing and technology, delved deeper and sought the planet’s inner heat. A half dozen other sites were chosen because they were defensible: fortresses or warehouses that could be guarded against the desperate crowds outside. In such buildings cellars were excavated into shafts, corridors were hurriedly dug slant downwards. For a week, frantic activity worked as a sedative upon human anxieties; for the labour of cultivation, as the great Voltaire most famously said, distracts us from misery, But it could only ever be a temporary release from terror.

An hour came when one of this new crew of miners—in past life a great scientist, director of the Institut de Marseille pour l'Avancement des Sciences and possessor of a number of m├ędailles d'or for his work in chemistry and mathematics—came to the end of his shift digging, digging deeper, digging onwards towards the warmth at the earth's core. He took his turn on the ramparts, guarding the building from assault by desperate survivors. In his right hand he held a stale croissant, and in his left (for he was, as the French say, un gaucher) a pistol.

This gentleman greeted his fellow sentries gruffly, and looked about him. But though the prospect was littered with frozen bodies, this night—and it was always and only ever night—was quieter than usual. He gasped, and thought at first that his subterranean labour had worn out his lungs more severely than usual. He took a bite of pastry, and tried again to draw breath. He puffed like un asthmatique. One of the other sentries noted that it was snowing again. ‘We haven’t seen snow in several days,’ somebody else remarked. Gross flakes fluttered, moth-like, into the cones of the torchlight. The former directeur held out a twice-gloved hand, and observed these strangely blue flakes land upon the fabric of his sleeve. He knew immediately what it meant. Being by nature a frugal and cautious human being, a man to whom waste was distasteful, he finished eating his croissant, and washed it down with a swig of brandy. Then he raised his pistol to his temples, and pulled the trigger.

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