Bronson Beta Series, The by Wylie, Philip & Edwin Balmer, 1961

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Collectively the two books by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, individually titled When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide tell the story of a mission to save a small fragment of humanity from a planetary threat zooming towards Earth from the depths of space. Written in the 1930s, the books were crafted pretty well, and can be evaluated passably from a modern perspective. Part of the reason for this is that unlike many of their contemporaries they are not too off scientifically. The catastrophe and situations that arise from it were spectacularly described and very realistic feeling, the characters were all intelligent, capable and well described, and for the most part the science was pretty well done. But the books also displayed a strong tendency towards melodrama, and at every turn there was something about the female and non-Caucasian characters that just rubbed the wrong way. Wylie and Balmer did take pains to resolve some of the unfairness and prejudice before the books ended though, and considering the prevailing attitudes of the 1930s, I would have to say that they went as far as they could. There are a hundred little things I could point to in these books to prove why they are substandard and not as good as modern examples of catastrophe and post-apocalyptic literature, but the fact is that on the balance they hold up much better than lots of other modern examples. Wylie and Balmer were trail blazers. Modern authors and screenwriters are still mining these stories for fodder for their own works, and there is very good reason why; the story in these books is solid and the catastrophic elements are well constructed. Despite being dated, these books are winners.

When Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer, 1933: It occurred to me the first time that I read this book that in the category of SF's more seminal works, there is probably no single work with more progeny than Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's 1933 masterpiece, When Worlds Collide. I've since learned that "planet busting" was a common enough pastime for many pulp era writers, and that what happens to the Earth in the pages of this book was not unprecedented. But since my childhood I have read several of those other cosmic-catastrophe pieces, and still nothing matches up with or surpasses this one. For me calling any work written in the 1930s a masterpiece is a bit of a reach, mostly because many of those pieces are so dated and rife with stale jargon and archaic flourishes of style that they are practically unreadable these days. When Worlds Collide does suffer from these problems (or maybe its the reader who actually suffers; you be the judge), but overall it is so spectacular, so well constructed and so innovative - for its time - that it bears reading by any serious student or aficionado of SF, especially those who are into disaster tales.

When Worlds Collide is one of those books that is remarkably true to its title. As the book opens you are only informed that a great secret is being kept by an association of the world's greatest scientists called The League of Last Days, and that David Ransdell, one of the world's greatest aviators and adventuremen, has been dispatched from his South African home to the jungles of New York City with a mysterious box. Ransdell arrives to great fanfare and is shuttled to the home of Cole Hendron, one of the world's greatest scientists (yes, the authors are as full of superlatives as any other author of their time). Hendron has been working with a South African astronomer, Sven Bronson, and has been asked to confirm Bronson's findings on several dozen photographic plates. Soon, to the teeming masses of reporters and citizens of the world, Hendron announces that two planet-sized bodies are headed towards our sun, and will pass very closely to the Earth. What Hendron does not reveal is that the bodies, called thereafter the Bronson Bodies, will circle the sun and on the way back out of the system Bronson Alpha, a Uranus sized gas giant, will impact the Earth and carry it off, while Bronson Beta, an Earth-sized rocky planet, will assume roughly its former orbit. Thus begins the adventure.

Wylie and Balmer set out to write a modern SF story that reflected the Biblical stories of Noah and Moses. This book took up the Noah part, and its sequel, titled appropriately, if rather unimaginatively After Worlds Collide did the Moses thing. Alerted to the danger years before impact the people of Earth had a long time to prepare. Unfortunately the task at hand was enormous, but Hendron was up to it. His job was to get enough funding and scientific expertise to design from scratch a rocket capable of taking enough people across from Earth to Bronson Beta so that the human race may survive. Set in contemporaneous 1930s America, I'm sure you can see what the problems were. First and foremost the nation was still about 40 years away from Apollo, and none of the technology or industries that fed that program were even a glimmer in their various CEO's eye.

Although When Worlds Collide is first and foremost about a massive engineering project. It predicted - rather well actually - the American Space program. The authors described well enough the theory and engineering problems encountered with making atomic engines and a rocket capable of crossing the distance from Earth to Bronson Beta. Actually, I'm fairly certain that the various Rocket Societies that eventually gave rise to SF fandom were all a' twitter with the ballistics science in this book. But there was also a passably described human side to the book. The authors spent an inordinate amount of time hashing and rehashing a love triangle between Ransdell, the rugged adventurer, Hendron's daughter, the beautiful and brainy Eve (another Biblical analog) and her boyfriend Tony, the man-about-town with the wisdom to know enough not to flaunt it. I wasn't keeping count, but I'll be damned if less than half the pages of the novel are not dedicated at least in part to someone's heart breaking or one of the guys getting hot under the collar because the other got a kiss on the cheek or something. For my money every word of that could have been ejected. I'm still not sure who exactly they were trying to appeal to. It's not like Eve was the typical SF babe in a conical-boobed brassiere with an exposed midriff and a penchant for loud screams. Actually on her own Eve was pretty well developed, though in the minds of other characters she was frequently reduced to mere property. It's probably in the context of this triangle that I can best explain to you how awful some of the language the authors used was. I've read a lot of SF from this era and I have to say that this is not atypical, but man, by today's standards it's just bad. When advised by Hendron that Tony and Eve cannot marry because life on the new planet may require the use of eugenics:

To have held her close to him, to have caught her against him while she clung to him, her lips on his - and then to be forbidden her! To be finally and completely forbidden to love her!

Oh, the angst!!! Maybe its to show that Tony can survive anything. I don't know. I'm past caring. Really, this is just for laughs now. On the other hand, other language was pretty cool. From the part of the book where the planets passed the first time, on their way to the sun. The Earth is racked by earth-tides, where the planet itself is pulled towards the massive gravity well of Alpha:

Upon millions poured oceans of seething magma carrying death more terrible than the death which rolled on the tongue of the great tides. The air which was breathed by other millions was suddenly choked with sulfurous fumes and they fell like gassed soldiers, strangling in the streets of their destroyed cities. Live steam, blown with the violence of hurricane, scalded populous centers and barren steppes impartially. From a sky that had hitherto deluged mankind only with rain, snow and hail, fell now burning torrents and red-hot sleet. The very earth itself slowed in its rotation, sped up again, sucked and dragged through space at the caprice of the bodies in the sky above. It became girdled in smoke and steam, and blasts of hot gas; and upon it as Bronson Alpha and Beta drew away, there fell torrential rains which hewed down rich land to the bare rock, which cooled the issue from the earth to vast metallic oceans, and which were accompanied by lightnings that furnished the infernal scenery with incessant illumination, and by thunder which blended undetectably with the terrestrial din.

I told you it was a melodramatic. After the destruction caused by the Bronson Bodies first passage - which Hendron and his group survived by picking a very geologically stable area in Michigan to set up shop - Ransdell and few other men surveyed the country by air. The adventurer and his group found a strange metal that had been forced to the surface by the earthquakes. Malleable but very tough it turned out to be the discovery that saved them all, as Hendron was trying to design an "atomic tube" that would function to lift the ship without burning through the body of the tube itself. Once back in the camp they dealt with the inevitable barbarian/looters by constructing the tubes, lifting the ship and spraying the countryside with enough radiation to burn the air.

I first read this book back when I was a very young boy. Along with Larry Niven's Ringworld, which I read a few years later When Worlds Collide got me into SF in the first place. I remember loving this thing so much that I eventually read my cheap paperback to tatters. I have read it a few times since college, and each time up until now I liked it less and less, almost entirely because it was so dated and so over-the-top, and because of the period-specific racism and sexism. I guess I was pretty sensitive to that stuff when I was younger. Now I think I have come full circle and little of that bothers me any longer. This book certainly does not deserve scorn, which is what I heaped upon it the last time I read it; back in 1996 or something like that. It's responsible for much of what disaster fiction is today, and it still sits atop the pile as an example of the finest that the early genre pioneers could produce. Wylie and Balmer made a few mistakes with their science, but not very many. Considering the state of physics at the time that they wrote it, especially gravity and orbital mechanics, which was entirely theory and based on no off-Earth practice, I'm sure they made even less than the few I identified. And yes, it's horribly dated, but not as bad as some others I've read, and it still manages in many parts to be spectacular, thought provoking and great fun. I can't say that I wish they were making them like this any more, but I'm sure glad this one came along when it did.

After Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie & Edwin Balmer, 1934:

“They all died a million years ago. But where did they go to die?”

“Who cares?” Eliot continued his argument. “Can a ghost live a million years? I don’t believe they can. Come on in, Tony. They can’t even haunt us.

After Worlds Collide picks up exactly where When Worlds Collide ends. Hendron's group has found enough material to build two ark ships. Both of them escaped before the Earth was destroyed, but the ships separated from one another on the journey to Bronson Beta. The ship with Hendron, Tony and Eve - the original ship - landed in the wilderness completely out of sight of the ship commanded by Ransdell. The first few chapters focused exclusively on Tony's ship; Tony's group did not know if Ransdell survived the journey, if any other nation's ships got off of Earth, or if any of the aliens native to Bronson Beta survived.

There are multiple plot arcs in this book. The authors focused on Hendron's group as they searched for find Ransdell's ship, or any other for that matter that might have gotten off of the Earth before Alpha destroyed it. Once on their new home world Hendron's group had to make sure that human life could be sustained; they had to make sure that their crops would grow, that their animals would live, that they could breathe the air. They had to figure out how to survive. While they were doing this they worried that they were not alone on Bronson Beta. The planet boasted five incredibly beautiful and advanced domed cities that were filled with stores of edible food and abundant, functioning power. Several days after landing they spotted air-craft spying on them that they figured came from the direction of the largest city. They wondered if it was piloted by an alien that survived the passage of millions of years through space, or a human pilot from the crew of another ship that made it across to Beta. Hendron had focused on getting seeds into the ground for crops, but once they spotted the airplane Tony began to explore the surrounding countryside. Before too long Tony found Ransdell’s group and its ship, and discovered a nearby city that both groups moved to for safety. At about the same time Tony's group (without Tony, who was off finding Ransdell) fought off and destroyed a flotilla of alien aircraft that were piloted by members of a mixed crew of Japanese, German and Chinese. Tony and Ransdell together regrouped, surveyed the city, and prepared for war.

After Worlds Collide is has a different tone than its predecessor; where When focuses on adventure, heroism and catastrophe, After is much more concerned with scientific issues and survival. It also pretends a bit to be utopic - about a "strictly scientific civilization" that looks like it will draw certain elements from sociological records found on Bronson Beta; but does very little to develop that theme. It is therefore a much quieter, less spectacular book and while I personally think it is the inferior book, it is by no means substandard. After Worlds Collide also, like its predecessor, has Biblical motifs, but this time taken from the story of Moses in Exodus.

After Worlds Collide is also markedly fairer in its treatment of women and non-white races. To be sure Hendron’s, group could not be any whiter, though Tony’s servant, a Japanese man named Kyto, was present. In book one Kyto was one step removed from a coolie. In book two he was given an opportunity to stretch his wings and find a place of importance in the society, though he was still somewhat submissive. There were also some female histrionics in book two, as there was in book one, but by and large Eve and a few other women kept their cool and contributed to lessen the survival pressure that the group felt. And where part of the threat that the group faced sprung directly from a Yellow Peril – complete with the enslavement by the “Asiatics” of the crew from a British ship – even that was tempered as the heroes learned about their enemy and what they faced.

After also differs markedly from its predecessor because of the anthropological focus. This is probably one of the earliest alien anthropology books I’ve found. When Hendron and the group landed on Beta they were worried that the alien technology of their predecessors had been advanced enough to keep some aliens alive during the multi-million year long journey from their home system. The aliens were acutely aware of their impending doom as a rogue sun pulled Beta and its primary, Alpha, from the orbit of their home sun. They had hundreds of years to prepare and in that time completely remade the surface of Beta, winnowing their population down to a few million while remaking a planet that essentially had one global city back to a pastoral paradise with a very few highly advanced cities, capable of surviving the extreme temperatures of interstellar space. One alien reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci left written records of what they went through and how they prepared for catastrophe.

At the end all wrongs are corrected and white/American power prevails, and even the misdirected (not evil by any measurement) enemies are “saved” and invited into the fold. I always wondered if Wylie and Balmer were planning a third novel where alien survivors would come out of suspended animation chambers. That would have been a natural third act, but instead it ends here, with Eve becoming pregnant with Tony’s child.

When and After Words Collide are dated, but not as badly as some SF written later in the 40s or 50s. There are innumerable books I would recommend before these, but for some reason I have come back to them time and again. I think that this is the fourth time I’ve read When and the third I’ve read After. There is just something about them that attracts; I keep selling my copies, only to long for them and repurchase then years later. Part of me thinks that they are lame. Part of me loves them and I’m sure will want to read them yet again in five or ten years. Guess I’ll hold onto this Bison Books omnibus copy I have.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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