A red sky over a cobblestone road that leads past alien plants toward a land of lava.

The Fading Sun (Part 2)

An Examination of the Astronomy in The Night Land,
The House on the Borderland, and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine

by

To The Fading Sun (Part 1)

The late Andy Robertson showed that some of William Hope Hodgson's speculative fiction was inspired by H.G Wells' The Time Machine, and by the science of its day. Here I examine the evolution of the far-future Sun in The House on the Borderland.


Since Mr. Hodgson treats the end of the world at much greater length than Mr. Wells, I must break an examination of his treatment thereof into parts. In this section I'll cover the first part of the far-future vision in The House on the Borderland.

The Recluse's passage to the far future in The House on the Borderland is clearly inspired by the Time Traveller's journey in The Time Machine. Throughout the first part of The House, it's easy to imagine that Mr. Hodgson's primary intent is to expand on Mr. Wells' far-future vision, to shift its genre, to darken its mood. Andy Sawyer points out, in "Time Machines Go Both Ways," that Mr. Hodgson's treatment of his themes often bears a closer resemblance to Gothic horror than to science fiction, even if his matter is science-fictional. This is a just contention: but I submit that Mr. Hodgson's speculative works often fall into a new subgenre of Romance (in the old sense of Romance) that, when further developed by H.P. Lovecraft, we will recognize as cosmic horror.

Questions of genre aside — Andy Robertson asked whether The Night Land was meant to be a sequel to The Time Machine; by implication, he also asks whether The House on the Borderland is. I believe the answer is no, because of certain differences in the physical universe. Two such differences will show up in the astronomy of The House on the Borderland's far future; I will address them below.


It is not practical to quote the whole future vision (if vision it is meant to be) of the Recluse in The House, seeing that it occupies several chapters, starting in XV. I have here excerpted the parts that deal with the astronomy, until the death of of the Sun as a light source. Further, the account in The House continues after the death of the Sun: but it won't fit here. I’ll deal with that in another essay. And, once again, the descriptions in the book necessarily include both orbital and rotational changes to the planets, and changes to the Sun itself; but I am only looking closely at the latter right now.

The Recluse has no time machine; but in the strange titular House, he begins seeing the day pass swiftly: the Sun and Moon move visibly across the sky. This effect accelerates; visible decay besets things around him. All throughout, it’s becoming colder; and eventually the land round about will be covered with momentary snow.

I moved slowly to the window, and looked out once more across the world. I can best describe the passage of day and night, at this period, as a sort of gigantic, ponderous flicker. Moment by moment, the acceleration of time continued; so that, at nights now, I saw the moon, only as a swaying trail of palish fire, that varied from a mere line of light to a nebulous path, and then dwindled again, disappearing periodically.

As the Recluse’s view of time speeds up, day and night blur together and he primarily perceives the seasonal motion of the Sun, and the change of the seasons.

The flicker of the days and nights quickened. The days had grown perceptibly darker, and a queer quality of dusk lay, as it were, in the atmosphere. The nights were so much lighter, that the stars were scarcely to be seen, saving here and there an occasional hairlike line of fire, that seemed to sway a little, with the moon.

Quicker, and ever quicker, ran the flicker of day and night; and, suddenly it seemed, I was aware that the flicker had died out, and, instead, there reigned a comparatively steady light, which was shed upon all the world, from an eternal river of flame that swung up and down, North and South, in stupendous, mighty swings.

The sky was now grown very much darker, and there was in the blue of it a heavy gloom, as though a vast blackness peered through it upon the earth. Yet, there was in it, also, a strange and awful clearness, and emptiness. Periodically, I had glimpses of a ghostly track of fire that swayed thin and darkly toward the sun-stream; vanished and reappeared. It was the scarcely visible moon-stream.

Looking out at the landscape, I was conscious again, of a blurring sort of 'flitter,' that came either from the light of the ponderous-swinging sun-stream, or was the result of the incredibly rapid changes of the earth's surface. And every few moments, so it seemed, the snow would lie suddenly upon the world, and vanish as abruptly, as though an invisible giant 'flitted' a white sheet off and on the earth.

Later his perspective moves forward still faster:

After awhile, I turned once more to the window, and peered out. I discovered, now, that the speed of time had become enormous. The lateral quiver of the sun-stream, had grown so swift as to cause the dancing semi-circle of flame to merge into, and disappear in, a sheet of fire that covered half the Southern sky from East to West.

Now the Kelvinian Sun starts visibly to dim and change color. This is more or less in line with 19th-century ideas of its future, except that the actual sequence would be:

  • visual white -> yellow -> orange -> red

which would be pleasing to behold; but Mr. Hodgson describes it in lurid and ominous hues, to fit the threatening mood of the work.

I looked up again, to the fiery sheet that quaked in the heavens above me and far down into the Southern sky. As I looked, the impression was borne in upon me, that it had lost some of its first brilliancy—that it was duller, deeper hued.

I glanced down, once more, to the blurred white of the worldscape. Sometimes, my look returned to the burning sheet of dulling flame, that was, and yet hid, the sun. At times, I glanced behind me, into the growing dusk of the great, silent room, with its aeon-carpet of sleeping dust....

Then the Recluse recognizes that he's watching the beginning of the slow extinction of the Sun:

It might have been a million years later, that I perceived, beyond possibility of doubt, that the fiery sheet that lit the world, was indeed darkening.

Another vast space went by, and the whole enormous flame had sunk to a deep, copper color. Gradually, it darkened, from copper to copper-red, and from this, at times, to a deep, heavy, purplish tint, with, in it, a strange loom of blood.

Although the light was decreasing, I could perceive no diminishment in the apparent speed of the sun. It still spread itself in that dazzling veil of speed.

The world, so much of it as I could see, had assumed a dreadful shade of gloom, as though, in very deed, the last day of the worlds approached.

The sun was dying; of that there could be little doubt; and still the earth whirled onward, through space and all the aeons. At this time, I remember, an extraordinary sense of bewilderment took me. I found myself, later, wandering, mentally, amid an odd chaos of fragmentary modern theories and the old Biblical story of the world's ending.

...

Gradually, as time fled, I began to feel the chill of a great winter. Then, I remembered that, with the sun dying, the cold must be, necessarily, extraordinarily intense. Slowly, slowly, as the aeons slipped into eternity, the earth sank into a heavier and redder gloom. The dull flame in the firmament took on a deeper tint, very somber and turbid.

Visible tidal locking of the Earth to the Sun begins: Earth’s rotation is slowing and the Recluse is starting to see the duller Sun traversing the sky as an arc again.

Then, at last, it was borne upon me that there was a change. The fiery, gloomy curtain of flame that hung quaking overhead, and down away into the Southern sky, began to thin and contract; and, in it, as one sees the fast vibrations of a jarred harp-string, I saw once more the sun-stream quivering, giddily, North and South.

Slowly, the likeness to a sheet of fire, disappeared, and I saw, plainly, the slowing beat of the sun-stream. Yet, even then, the speed of its swing was inconceivably swift. And all the time, the brightness of the fiery arc grew ever duller. Underneath, the world loomed dimly—an indistinct, ghostly region.

Overhead, the river of flame swayed slower, and even slower; until, at last, it swung to the North and South in great, ponderous beats, that lasted through seconds. A long space went by, and now each sway of the great belt lasted nigh a minute; so that, after a great while, I ceased to distinguish it as a visible movement; and the streaming fire ran in a steady river of dull flame, across the deadly-looking sky.

An indefinite period passed, and it seemed that the arc of fire became less sharply defined. It appeared to me to grow more attenuated, and I thought blackish streaks showed, occasionally. Presently, as I watched, the smooth onward-flow ceased; and I was able to perceive that there came a momentary, but regular, darkening of the world. This grew until, once more, night descended, in short, but periodic, intervals upon the wearying earth.

Mr. Hodgson’s description of the Sun cooling is clearly inspired by sunspots, which had been discovered centuries before; they're appearing as bands instead of spots because he's seeing the Sun's rotation speeded up, along with everything else.

Longer and longer became the nights, and the days equaled them; so that, at last, the day and the night grew to the duration of seconds in length, and the sun showed, once more, like an almost invisible, coppery-red colored ball, within the glowing mistiness of its flight. Corresponding to the dark lines, showing at times in its trail, there were now distinctly to be seen on the half-visible sun itself, great, dark belts.

Year after year flashed into the past, and the days and nights spread into minutes. The sun had ceased to have the appearance of a tail; and now rose and set—a tremendous globe of a glowing copper-bronze hue; in parts ringed with blood-red bands; in others, with the dusky ones, that I have already mentioned. These circles—both red and black—were of varying thicknesses. For a time, I was at a loss to account for their presence. Then it occurred to me, that it was scarcely likely that the sun would cool evenly all over; and that these markings were due, probably, to differences in temperature of the various areas; the red representing those parts where the heat was still fervent, and the black those portions which were already comparatively cool.

Like Mr. Wells, Mr. Hodgson has the Earth nearing the Sun: I will explain both elsewhere, when I deal with orbits and rotation.

It struck me, as a peculiar thing, that the sun should cool in evenly defined rings; until I remembered that, possibly, they were but isolated patches, to which the enormous rotatory speed of the sun had imparted a beltlike appearance. The sun, itself, was very much greater than the sun I had known in the old-world days; and, from this, I argued that it was considerably nearer.

I will also be dealing with the Moon in that context.

At nights, the moon[6] still showed; but small and remote; and the light she reflected was so dull and weak that she seemed little more than the small, dim ghost of the olden moon, that I had known.

[6] No further mention is made of the moon. From what is said here, it is evident that our satellite had greatly increased its distance from the earth. Possibly, at a later age it may even have broken loose from our attraction. I cannot but regret that no light is shed on this point.—Ed. [Footnote from the text, not me -- K. I will discuss this in another essay.]

Gradually, the days and nights lengthened out, until they equaled a space somewhat less than one of the old-earth hours; the sun rising and setting like a great, ruddy bronze disk, crossed with ink-black bars....

A Divergence: The Death of the Stars

So far, nothing we've read in The House on the Borderland is markedly inconsistent with The Time Machine, with respect to the astronomical future of Sun and Earth. But now we come to the first significant difference. It's all but unnoticeable in the text; but it will make a very big difference in the far-future Earth's night sky. I believe it to be intentional.

Recall from The Fading Sun (Part 1) that the Time Traveller observed of the late sky: 'The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.' He says nothing about there being few of them.

What did the science say?

19th century astronomers, like 21st century astronomers, believed they were looking at star formation and stellar evolution; but their idea of the sequences were different.

We have a stellar evolution sequence in which stars form at different masses. Their masses largely determine their size, their apparent color, the amount of radiation they give off, and their lifespans. Red giants and white dwarfs are stars that have evolved to the point where they've fallen off the 'main sequence'. The Hertsprung-Russell diagram describing this was not created until 1910, too late to inform the writing of The Time Machine and The House on the Borderland; and Hans Bethe would not demonstrate that fusion was powering the stars, explaining some features of the diagram, until 1938.

19th century scientists had a stellar evolution sequence in which stars form from nebulae; they start very large and cool, but as they begin to collapse under gravity, they become energetic, large, and hot. They spend their lives radiating away their energy, shrinking, and giving off lower and less energetic frequencies of light. There were various alterations and elaborations as the decades passed, but the basic sequence went so[K1]:

  1. Nebulae, out of which stars might form or were forming;
  2. 'Helium' stars (big and blue, with helium absorption bands in their spectra);
  3. Sirius-like stars;
  4. Solar stars;
  5. Red stars.

Astronomers in the 1800s therefore thought they were looking at young stars, in blue and blue-white stars. They identified star-forming regions, and young stars in the process of forming systems.

By the science of the epoch, then, Mr. Wells' Time Traveller could have expected to see as many stars, and as many bright stars, in the far future as he did in his native time. This matches the story, so far as it goes.

If Mr. Wells had gone into more detail, and if he had strictly followed 19th-century stellar evolution, the Time Traveller would not have been able to recognize stars or constellations. The stars that are bright in our time would be dim or extinguished; and if they were still shining, they would have shifted position. Some stars that are dim or not yet lit or not formed would be bright. But he might have seen as many stars as we see.

This is not what happens in Mr. Hodgson's cosmos.

The Recluse also sees very bright stars, with very sharp resolution — because the atmosphere is cold and thin. But there aren't many. In The House on the Borderland, it's not just the Sun that's dying.

All this time, the days and nights were lengthening, perceptibly. Already, each day occupied, maybe, some two hours from dawn to dusk. At night, I had been surprised to find that there were very few stars overhead, and these small, though of an extraordinary brightness; which I attributed to the peculiar, but clear, blackness of the nighttime.

...

Why?

Probably because The House on the Borderland is best understood as cosmic horror. The Recluse is watching the end of Earth as we know it in the first part of his quasi-vision. But he's soon to behold the end of Universe. Mr. Hodgson wanted, perhaps, to foreshadow that while the Sun still glows.

After the Sun is dead, he rapidly switches to a perspective in which the husk of the Sun and the Earth are drawn toward the enormous Green Star. There isn't a time in this sequence in which the small number of stars still shining is visually interesting: they would be a trivial interruption.

He might perhaps have made their fate interesting, if he'd decided to have a long period of blackness where the only interesting things the Recluse could see were the stars fading slowly out of the black sky. But possibly he decided the Death of the Sun sequence was quite long enough.

Possibly, too, The House is intended to take place in the same universe as The Night Land. And the Night Land's sky is utterly black — as I shall show when we get to it.

The House on the Borderland was published in 1908 and The Night Land in 1912, but Sam Gafford suggests that Mr. Hodgson's novels were published in the reverse of the order they were written in. Even if that were not so, Mr. Hodgson might have been thinking about The Night Land when writing The House.

After commenting on the paucity of stars, the Recluse notes that he is still seeing light toward the north. I will return to this in Part 3.

Away to the North, I could discern a nebulous sort of mistiness; not unlike, in appearance, a small portion of the Milky Way. It might have been an extremely remote star-cluster; or—the thought came to me suddenly—perhaps it was the sidereal universe that I had known, and now left far behind, forever—a small, dimly glowing mist of stars, far in the depths of space.

Tidal Locking: The Divergent Place of the Sun

The Recluse continues forward while the Sun dies, the Earth's orbit narrows, and its rotation slows. At last he regards the Sun itself with great fear.

Still, the days and nights lengthened, slowly. Each time, the sun rose duller than it had set. And the dark belts increased in breadth.

...

I glanced up at the sun. It shone with an extraordinary, dull clearness. I saw it, now, as one who, until then, had seen it, only through a partially obscuring medium. All about it, the sky had become black, with a clear, deep blackness, frightful in its nearness, and its unmeasured deep, and its utter unfriendliness. For a great time, I looked into it, newly, and shaken and fearful. It was so near. Had I been a child, I might have expressed some of my sensation and distress, by saying that the sky had lost its roof.

...

And all the earth was silent. And there was a cold, such as no living man can ever have known.

The earth was now illuminated, by day, with a most doleful light, beyond my power to describe. It seemed as though I looked at the great plain, through the medium of a bronze-tinted sea.

It was evident that the earth's rotatory movement was departing, steadily.

The Earth becomes tidally locked to the Sun. And here's another difference from The Time Machine.

The Time Traveller initially sees a red swollen Sun in the east. But as he skips forward, eventually the Sun ends up in the west, and it's there that it stands still, as long as the Earth survives as a planet.

The Recluse sees the Sun stand still in the east. There it stays.

The time machine and the House are both in the British Isles. We know the time machine doesn't change its latitude or longitude, because when the Time Traveller returns, his machine is still in his house: it's been dragged by the Morlocks, but it doesn't move far. And there is no reason to think the House changed latitude or longitude. (Dr. Alfred Wegener would not propose continental drift until 1912, and his hypothesis would be rejected for decades.) So if The House is set in the same cosmos as The Time Machine, they should be seeing the Sun standing still in similar positions.

Is the different final position of the Sun a deliberate change from The Time Machine, or did Mr. Hodgson not notice that Mr. Wells' Sun had moved? Or did it not matter — as it wouldn't, if these are intended to be different fictional universes?

It's hard to say: it makes no real difference in The House on the Borderland itself. The only thing it changes is the possible location of the Night Land, assuming that work takes place in the same fictional cosmos as The House. That I will discuss elsewhere.

The end came, all at once. The night had been the longest yet; and when the dying sun showed, at last, above the world's edge, I had grown so wearied of the dark, that I greeted it as a friend. It rose steadily, until about twenty degrees above the horizon. Then, it stopped suddenly, and, after a strange retrograde movement, hung motionless—a great shield in the sky[9]. Only the circular rim of the sun showed bright—only this, and one thin streak of light near the equator.

There’s another footnote. I'll explain this when I discuss orbits.

[9] I am confounded that neither here, nor later on, does the Recluse make any further mention of the continued north and south movement (apparent, of course,) of the sun from solstice to solstice.—Ed. [Footnote from the original text.]

Gradually, even this thread of light died out; and now, all that was left of our great and glorious sun, was a vast dead disk, rimmed with a thin circle of bronze-red light.

...

Silently, years moved on. What period of time passed, I shall never know. It seemed to me, waiting there, that eternities came and went, stealthily; and still I watched. I could see only the glow of the sun's edge, at times; for now, it had commenced to come and go—lighting up a while, and again becoming extinguished.

Destruction of a Planet

Because the planets' orbits are shrinking, the Time Traveller saw an inner planet partially eclipse the Sun. The Recluse sees an inner planet — presumably Mercury, since it's the first — fall into the Sun.

Is this another astronomical divergence between the future history of the two works? I don't think so. If the Time Traveller had kept travelling forward instead of returning, he probably would eventually have seen the same. I will discuss this in more detail when we get to orbits.

All at once, during one of these periods of life, a sudden flame cut across the night—a quick glare that lit up the dead earth, shortly; giving me a glimpse of its flat lonesomeness. The light appeared to come from the sun—shooting out from somewhere near its center, diagonally. A moment, I gazed, startled. Then the leaping flame sank, and the gloom fell again. But now it was not so dark; and the sun was belted by a thin line of vivid, white light. I stared, intently. Had a volcano broken out on the sun? Yet, I negatived the thought, as soon as formed. I felt that the light had been far too intensely white, and large, for such a cause.

Another idea there was, that suggested itself to me. It was, that one of the inner planets had fallen into the sun—becoming incandescent, under that impact. This theory appealed to me, as being more plausible, and accounting more satisfactorily for the extraordinary size and brilliance of the blaze, that had lit up the dead world, so unexpectedly.

Full of interest and emotion, I stared, across the darkness, at that line of white fire, cutting the night. One thing it told to me, unmistakably: the sun was yet rotating at an enormous speed.[11] Thus, I knew that the years were still fleeting at an incalculable rate; though so far as the earth was concerned, life, and light, and time, were things belonging to a period lost in the long gone ages.

[11] I can only suppose that the time of the earth's yearly journey had ceased to bear its present relative proportion to the period of the sun's rotation.—Ed.

Death of the Sun

At last the Sun itself dies.

After that one burst of flame, the light had shown, only as an encircling band of bright fire. Now, however, as I watched, it began slowly to sink into a ruddy tint, and, later, to a dark, copper-red color; much as the sun had done. Presently, it sank to a deeper hue; and, in a still further space of time, it began to fluctuate; having periods of glowing, and anon, dying. Thus, after a great while, it disappeared.

Long before this, the smoldering edge of the sun had deadened into blackness. And so, in that supremely future time, the world, dark and intensely silent, rode on its gloomy orbit around the ponderous mass of the dead sun.

I have omitted mood-building passages that show no astronomical events, which will tend to undercut the emotional import: the primary effect of Mr. Hodgson's Death of the Sun sequence is horror, or at the very least profound disquiet.

If this were all Mr. Hodgson had to say about the end of the world, it would be of interest as sombre writing. But, though there are already major differences apparent in other areas, it doesn’t — yet — radically break from The Time Machine in its view of the dying Earth and Sun, or of Man. But in the second half of The House' s Death of the Universe, we will see that Mr. Hodgson is not drawing solely on The Time Machine: there is more science in the Green Star sequence than might be immediately apparent.


Footnotes

[K1] Agnes Mary Clerke, the well-known historian of astronomy, was an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (which did not then admit women as Fellows). In 1905 in Modern Cosmogonies, she wrote of the development of views of stellar evolution from Father Angelo Secchi's purely observational classification of stars:

Secchi's classification of the stars was unwarped by any speculative fancy. It was purely formal; it aimed only at providing distinct compartments for the convenient arrangement of a multitude of differently characterized items of information. Then, by degrees, the closeness of the gradations between one class and the next came to be noticed; partitions melted away; the methodized array showed itself to be in movement; and the bare framework took shape, under the auspices of Zollner and Vogel, as a cosmic pedigree. The white stars were set forth as the progenitors of yellow, yellow of red stars; and the insensibly progressive reinforcement of the traits of relation ship between the successive types went far towards demonstrating some partial, if not a complete, correspondence of the indicated order with the truth of things. It has since been found necessary to divide the first stellar class into helium and Sirian stars; and here, too, essential diversity shades off imperceptibly into likeness approximating to identity. All the groups hang together; the entire scheme is on an inclined plane of change. Helium stars, as they condense, pass into Sirian, these into solar stars, which finally, reddening through the increase of absorption, exhibit the badge of post-meridional existence in fluted spectra. The finality of the red stage is, indeed, very far from being absolute, but what lies beyond is matter of conjecture.

This is the broadest outline of the matter: complexities and puzzles are explained in Modern Cosmogonies and her other books, including The System of the Stars and Problems in Astrophysics. · back to text


Copyright 2016 by Kate Coady.
Image copyright 2013 by Kate Coady.