Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie
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Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's 1932 When Worlds Collide is billed on the cover of my 1968 Paperback Library edition as "The classic novel that ranks with 1984 and Brave New World." Um...no. Definitely not. It is, though, tolerable science fiction of 2.5- to 3-star variety, memorable more as an artifact of early 1930s science fiction than as a deftly written or thought-provoking piece of literature.

Mind you, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was published the same year as Wylie and Balmer's novel, and yet Huxley's remains delightfully readable both for its imaginative probing and for its writing. The discerning reader, however, will pick up When Worlds Collide out of curiosity but will finish the book more out of duty than out of excitement.

Yes, the impending complete destruction of Earth by a wandering gas giant, along with the possibility for emigration to the planet's terrestrial companion for an elite few, surely gives enough of a problem for the plot. The science, however, is rather thoughtless and rushed, even for the pulp era; the intellectual and moral underpinnings of who, out of all the 1.5 billion in the world, should have a berth on the ark are woefully underexamined as well; and characterization somehow seems to grow ever more two-dimensional as the story progresses.

How is it, for example, that these scientists of 1932 are so close not only to nuclear fission but also to using an atomic motor as a direct-thrust rocket? Why is everyone so sure that the Earth-sized companion wanderer would be habitable? Such things could have been made a bit more believable, perhaps, but some careful and deliberate setup definitely would have been necessary.

Worse, the logic of the "lifeboat ethics" of the novel receive no real examination or soul-searching. The eminent scientists who found the "League of the Last Days" are going to take the best of the world, period. This means the intelligent, of course, though mainly in science-science fields rather than social science--yet no promising children likely on the way to useful adulthood are recruited, come to think of it--and the physically healthy. Such, we are told with unquestioned eugenic aplomb, will be the best to carry on and reproduce the species on a once-frozen new world.

But how will this new society of only one or two hundred be organized? We are told, after all, that there must be--quick wiping of drool here--scientifically directed breeding. The beautiful two-legged brood mares brought aboard the Space Ark will be available for Anyone Whom Science Dictates, and the broad-shouldered young fellows whose intellects are matched only by their former college sports records will have to provide human stud service of the most noble and selfless kind. Yes, saving the human race is tough work, but it may have its occasional rewards. But how will personal and societal relationships be organized, and what will the living arrangements look like? And yet, speaking of race, 'tis odd, though never remarked-upon by any character, that all of the chosen happen to be of European stock...

Finally, the writing here tends toward the overly broad, with sweeping, sometimes-stereotypical observations and a point of view that by no means makes for a subtle or nuanced read. Comparisons to Huxley's Brave New World, or even to other '30s works collected in Healy and McComas's 1946 Adventures in Time and Space will show this work noticeably inferior.

I was rather surprised--and I think this observation is correct, as opposed to being one driven by increasing literary ennui--that characterization actually grows worse as the novel draws on. The more we get to know Dr. Cole Hendron, for example--the physicist who confirms the trajectories of the inrushing paired planets, liberates nuclear energy, and builds the Space Ark--the less we know him. Oh, he speaks, of course, though more often he pontificates, enough that at one point he apologies for making so many speeches...but then goes right on speechifyin'. Rather than revealing any true "self," Hendron instead more and more becomes the cardboard cutout Leader, as firm as Mussolini's jaw and seemingly incapable of technical or moral error. Those recruited by the League of the Last Days follow him without question, as he is the only one with a Plan. All has been thought out, all planned for, and no one ever seems to suggest alternatives or ask why; the chosen simply wait for one godlike order after another. Other named characters--as distinct from the indistinct "they" that make up the rest of the cheering worker bees--grow similarly wooden.

Should When Worlds Collide still be read? By anyone interested in pulp-era science fiction and who knows what that entails, yes. But only by these.
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Started Reading
December 23, 2017 – Finished Reading
December 25, 2017 – Shelved

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