A ruler is used to measure fragments that are said to be from a meteorite near Lake Chebarkul, 80km west of Chelyabinsk, Russia. (Reuters)
Feb. 16: Life is scariest when it imitates science fiction. The stunning video of the meteor that whistled and boomed across Russian skies yesterday unnerved even those with long experience imagining catastrophic events. Past and present practitioners of fantasy fiction in print and movies reacted to the views with awe — and some new ideas.
“Most of the time we can forget the universe, frankly,” said Stephen Baxter, president of the British Science Fiction Association and the author of books like Space and Last and First Contacts. “But today, there was ‘a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down’, to quote David Bowie. It reminds us of our true location, so to speak.”
Some yesterday were moved to recall the Tunguska Event of 1908, in which a vast tract in Siberia was flattened, apparently by an airburst from a low-passing asteroid.
“This is a much smaller event, but a Tunguska-sized event would vaporise 1,448 sq km of land,” said the journalist and fiction writer Tom Bissell, whose 2003 essay “A Comet’s Tale” investigated end-of-the-world possibilities. “Can you imagine that happening above a major metropolitan area? It would either fill the churches or empty the churches.”
More than a decade before Tunguska, H.G. Wells published The Star, in which people helplessly watch as a star nears Earth, causing vast disruptions to the planet but never directly striking it. We are slightly less helpless now, Baxter said, as we track asteroids more closely and continue to research ways to divert potential party-crashers. But his optimism is the cautious kind.
“I think we got overconfident in the 1990s,” with movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact, “when we thought we could fend off any threat”, he said. “H.G. Wells knew we couldn’t.”
In A Comet’s Tale, Bissell spoke to an astronomer who had “stopped reading the sci-fi novels he loved as a teenager when the science he was involved in became more interesting to him than fantasy”.
But for filmmakers, fantasy trumps reality, even when they turn their lens, as they have more recently, to the quotidian side of apocalypse from above. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World uses a pending asteroid collision to pair up Steve Carell and Keira Knightley on a road trip. In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, two sisters, played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, try to sort out their lives before the celestial credits roll.
For others, meteors suggest more outlandish scenarios. Damon Lindelof, a producer and co-writer of the coming Star Trek Into Darkness and a co-creator of Lost, imagined being in a meeting with a studio chief yesterday morning and asked on the spot to come up with an idea for a movie tied to the meteor event.
“My pitch would start by focusing on the lie,” he said. “The scientific community, particularly Nasa, insists that the meteor that just exploded over Russia has nothing to do with the asteroid hurtling towards Earth — lies, all lies. Actually, that Russian explosion was an extraterrestrial mortar shell fired from multiple galaxies away as an attempt to divert the asteroid and save Earth.”
He paused for a moment for dramatic effect. “Of course, the twist is that these aliens want to enslave us, and Earth is useless to them if it’s destroyed.”
“We can do better than that,” said Dave Howe, president of the Syfy channel, after being told of Lindelof’s idea. “Imagine if that asteroid has dragon eggs inside it,” he said. “Add in some low-budget special effects and it would be a classic Syfy Saturday night movie,” referring to his network’s franchise.
But who would save the day?
“Clearly President Putin,” Howe said, meaning the Russian leader Vladimir V. “Only he would come to the rescue on horseback because the asteroid has knocked all the power out.”