Friday, August 28, 2015

Omega: The Last Days of the World by Camille Flammarion

With a bang or a whimper?
Camille Flammarion was a French astronomer and a prolific author who wrote both scientific texts and popular literature. His novel La Fin du Monde was published in 1893 and has since been translated into English as Omega: The Last Days of the World. Flammarion was a contemporary of Jules Verne, and both were pioneers of the science fiction novel. Judging by Omega, however, Flammarion is less interested than Verne in telling a crowd-pleasing story, and more concerned with educating people about science. If Verne was 19th-century France’s Michael Crichton, Flammarion was its Carl Sagan.

Astronomers have sighted a comet hurtling towards the Earth from the deep reaches of space. Intricate mathematical calculations determine that this comet will pass frighteningly close to our planet, perhaps even colliding with us. Spectrography reveals that the comet is composed primarily of carbonic oxide gas, with a few large, solid “uranolites” and “bolides” mixed in. Even if no catastrophic impact results from these solid meteorites, the comet’s gaseous matter is likely to have deadly effects on the human race, perhaps suffocating us all or igniting our entire atmosphere into flame. An emergency conference is called in Paris, at which experts from many disciplines—scientific, philosophical, religious—debate the effects of the comet and the possible end of life as we know it. Outside in the streets, humanity desperately awaits their verdict on the future of our world.

All of this takes place in the 25th century. At first, 25th-century France doesn’t seem to differ much from its 19th-century past. Gradually, however, futuristic details are revealed such as “domesticated monkeys” and “the inhabitants of Mars.” For the most part, this novel has no characters. As described above, various dignitaries make their speeches, but Flammarion usually refers to the human race or the inhabitants of Paris as a whole. Mostly he describes the scientific properties that govern the Earth and the Universe. He explores every possible outcome of the comet collision, as well as speculating what the end of the world will look like if nature is allowed to run its course. Though the book lacks the heroic narrative one expects from science fiction literature, Flammarion’s novel is nonetheless fascinating. His account of the Earth’s demise is related with the frank and factual delivery of science journalism. 

Needless to say, the science is not always accurate. Mars is still described as having seas. Geology is discussed with no awareness of plate tectonics. Flammarion describes the burning of the sun entirely in mechanical (non-nuclear) terms. For him, the sun’s light arises from flame not fusion, because nuclear physics hadn’t been invented yet. Despite these forgivable inaccuracies of a century ago, the novel succeeds in inspiring a wonder for science and the marvelous workings of the natural world. Admittedly, there are a few dull digressions here and there, but Flammarion’s boundless imagination and audacious speculations never fail to impress. Towards the end he includes some romantic passages that unfortunately betray the relentlessly rational, materialistic approach established throughout. I enjoyed the book so much overall, however, that I’m willing to forgive a little gratuitous spiritualism. Anyone who enjoys vintage science fiction or appreciates classic books that weren’t afraid to tackle big ideas should definitely check out Omega. It will not disappoint.
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