When Worlds Collide

I’ve seen the 1951 Rudolph Maté movie adaptation of When Worlds Collide. It is near the top of classic 1950’s Science Fiction movies. I never gave its source material much thought. The movie won an Oscar that year for its special effects which involved the use of miniatures to convey the large scale of the story. The 1951 movie is also interesting in their views on how interplanetary space flight could be made possible if the scientific community decided to accomplish the task. Reading the book is increases that interest because it was written two decades earlier.

Co-authors Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer wrote When Worlds Collide as a six part serial. In the book and in the movie the hero of the story is a courier who starts out carrying a secret message from South Africa to New York. In the book this involved planes and a cross-Atlantic steamship. By the movie the entire voyage was flown. So right from the first chapter you can see who the twenty years would cause the stories to diverge. This opening seen was also the inspiration for the beginning of the movie Deep Impact with the discover’s name changed from Bronson to Biederman.

The books and the movie further diverge in the celestial bodies. In the book we have Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, two planets that are ripped out of the orbit of their own star and sent on a collision course with earth that culminates in a destructive flyby and then a pool ball like collision a year later. The two planets are a large gaseous body described like Neptune and a second Earth-like smaller planet. On the first pass the larger Alpha takes out the Moon. On the second pass it takes out the Earth before continuing out on a new trajectory out of the solar system. Meanwhile the Beta world is along for the ride. Through the mayhem of its sibling it is deposited in an eccentric elliptical orbit that ends up oscillating between Venus and Mars. These astronomical events are so mathematically improbably (possibly impossible) but the underlying message is the allegory of Noah’s Ark. You have to suspend disbelief and assume that there is a destructive hand at work.

Instead of two rogue planets, the movie version has the planet Zyra in orbit around the sun Bellus. I don’t recall the genesis of these names. They are sprung on the audience like the names of a Godzilla movie monster. The movie version dispenses with the near miss and introduces its own bad science. In the book there are earthquakes and volcanoes caused by the first pass and destruction of the Moon. In the movie those earthquakes happen as the planet comes into gravitational effect range. It is as if the earth crossed over an event horizon where gravity began to cause earthquakes.

To escape the planet and take refuge on Beta/Zyra the book and movie both built a space ship. In the book each nation was on its own and this seems like the more realistic solution. We follow about 500 refugees from the American contingency and there are references to British and Asian ships as well. In the movie a single United Nations effort that results in the salvation of just 40 persons.

The ships. I think the book version got a lot of things right considering that it was written 80 years ago. They assumed that atomic energy would be the source of power. The book contrives a ship with engines at both ends so that it could be slowed like a train as it approached the destination. They lined the ship with books to protect them from the engine’s radiation. The crew and passengers were strapped in and spent the 96 hour voyage in slings. At the mid point the crew turned off the engines on one end of the ship, climbed up against the force of Earth gravity and took their place at the other end of the ship. Here a duplicate set of controls allowed the duplicate set of engines to slow the ship and eventually land vertically.

In the movie version their rocket looked more like a traditional rocket. They refer to fuel and we can assume it is a more traditional chemical rocket. The plot focuses on the calculation of weight versus fuel, although we then see animals loaded in steel cages. It used a mile long rocket sled to accelerate up the side of a mountain and then used its own engines and stubby wings for the rest of the flight. The use of the sled was was popular at the time so this is a nod to the current science. As they neared their destination, they correctly realized they could turn the ship around and use the same engines for deceleration. Then they used their stubby wings to glide like the Space Shuttle for a belly landing in the snow.

Gravity. The affects of gravity are not well shown in either version. Gravity is seen as a force that is either on or off. Both versions recognized a transition at the midpoint of the voyage where where would be no gravity. They assumed that this weightlessness would cause unconsciousness and be a great physiological shock to our travelers. Once again this reflected the popular science theory of the time. It would be three years after the movie before Dr. John Paul Stapp’s famous experiments on the effects of acceleration on the human body.

The sequel After Worlds Collide was also published in serial form the following year. It never became a movie. It follows our adventurers as they explore the new world and deal with the remnants of Earth political rivalries of the 1930s that they brought with them. It is more political and makes overt references to Fascism and Communism. It is a nice complement to the first. It reminded me of later world-building stories like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy.

I recommend both books. They are both short reads. The ending of the second book is a little abrupt. I can only imagine that a continuation of the series was planed but never happened. You can see in these books the later works that they inspired such as Deep Impact and Superman.

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