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

The Fading Sun (Part 1)

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


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. In this essay I examine the dimming and reddening of the far-future Sun.

William Hope Hodgson’s works of speculative fiction include different genres, but they all may describe the same universe. His novel The House on the Borderland contains the master chronology for that universe; and it was clearly strongly inspired in part by H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine: it might be intended to be the same universe.

Mr. Hodgson’s novel The Night Land is set in the far future, inside the very long chronology of The House on the Borderland; and it provides detail that isn’t apparent in The House on the Borderland.

I will, consequently, frequently refer to all three works. In Part 1, I will concentrate on The Time Machine.

Time Journeys: The Time Machine and The House on the Borderland

In The Time Machine, there are sequences where the Time Traveller usually briefly describes what the environment around him looks like as he speeds through time. After returning, he tells of three journeys:

  1. His first journey, to the time of the Eloi and the Morlocks; the physical world is not much altered then.
  2. His second desperate flight to escape the Morlocks. He ends up 30 million years in the future, when the Sun is fading. He then makes shorter time-hops in this era.
  3. A journey back to his own time.

Similarly, in The House on the Borderland, the Recluse’s quasi-vision takes him into the far future, when the Earth is dying and the Sun fading.

For our purposes, there are several important elements in these far future journeys:

  1. The Sun slowly dims and becomes red.
  2. The Moon disappears.
  3. The orbits of the planets shrink.
  4. The Earth’s rotation slows and the day-length becomes very long; eventually, the Earth becomes tidally locked to the Sun.
  5. The ultimate fate of the Sun and the Earth.

In this essay, I will deal with the first element: the lifespan of the Sun. Descriptions of the Sun in the works in question necessarily include the effects of solar tide-locking, but I’m not going to be discussing that in detail in this essay; nor will I here cover the shrinking orbits of the planets.

The Fading Sun

Why is the lifespan of the Sun so short, in The Time Machine and in Mr. Hodgson’s fictional universe? Why is it red and dim after 30 million years, when we now expect the Sun to shine much as it shines now for another 5 billion years?

As Mr. Robertson pointed out in “A Sequel to THE TIME MACHINE? The Science-Fictional Underpinnings of THE NIGHT LAND”, the chronology of The Time Machine (and hence of The Night Land) was — with respect to the lifespan of the Sun — based firmly on the science of its day.

No one in the 19th century knew what powered the Sun. The atomic nucleus itself wasn’t discovered until 1911, and so no one could have imagined nuclear reactions. They had to guess at other energy sources.

The most successful and likely proposal was initially made by Dr. Hermann von Helmholtz, and further developed by William Thomson, Baron Kelvin. Lord Kelvin calculated that, if the Sun were radiating energy produced by gravitational contraction, it would have a lifespan of millions of years. In his essay “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat”, written in 1862, he said:

We may, therefore, accept, as a lowest estimate for the sun’s initial heat, 10,000,000 times a year’s supply at the present rate, but 50,000,000 or 100,000,000 as possible, in consequence of the sun’s greater density in his central parts.

The considerations adduced above, in this paper, regarding the sun’s possible specific heat, rate of cooling, and superficial temperature, render it probable that he must have been very sensibly warmer one million years ago than now; and, consequently, if he has existed as a luminary for ten or twenty million years, he must have radiated away considerably more than the corresponding number of times the present yearly amount of loss.

It seems, therefore, on the whole most probable that the sun has not illuminated the earth for 100,000,000 years, and almost certain that he has not done so for 500,000,000 years. As for the future, we may say, with equal certainty, that inhabitants of the earth can not continue to enjoy the light and heat essential to their life for many million years longer unless sources now unknown to us are prepared in the great storehouse of creation.

Lord Kelvin was foresighted, in that last sentence: it turns out that there were sources of energy unknown in the 1800s. We now know that the Sun is fusing hydrogen into helium, an intensely energetic process that will allow it to shine in its present form for billions of years, not millions.

That was entirely unforeseeable around the turn of the previous century.

Consequently, in widely accepted science and some science fiction of Mr. Wells’ and Mr. Hodgson’s era, the Sun reddens, dims, and decreases in diameter as it slowly collapses and radiates away its heat and light.

Note that, while we no longer believe that gravitational collapse is the primary source of the Sun's radiant energy, the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism is still important for understanding the formation of stars, and the energy emissions of Jupiter and Saturn.

The Wellsian End of the World

In The Time Machine, after the death of his Eloi friend Weena, the Time Traveller is beset by Morlocks. He manages to reach his time machine, which they had stolen; and he escapes them only by a frantic time journey. He finds that he has travelled very far into the future. The old, old Earth, beneath the Fading Sun, is inhabited only by lower animals; and there is no mention of mammals, let alone Man.

The Sun at the Time Traveller’s first stop in the far future is in the southeast. It is also huge, and it will grow as he travels forward.

'I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.

'The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt—pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.

'Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine. Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters' whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.

'As I stared at this sinister apparition crawling towards me, I felt a tickling on my cheek as though a fly had lighted there. I tried to brush it away with my hand, but in a moment it returned, and almost immediately came another by my ear. I struck at this, and caught something threadlike. It was drawn swiftly out of my hand. With a frightful qualm, I turned, and I saw that I had grasped the antenna of another monster crab that stood just behind me. Its evil eyes were wriggling on their stalks, its mouth was all alive with appetite, and its vast ungainly claws, smeared with an algal slime, were descending upon me. In a moment my hand was on the lever, and I had placed a month between myself and these monsters. But I was still on the same beach, and I saw them distinctly now as soon as I stopped. Dozens of them seemed to be crawling here and there, in the sombre light, among the foliated sheets of intense green.

He travels forward again. The Sun is still to the east. It's increasingly hard to breathe.

Note the pale curved line in the western sky. I'll return to it in another essay.

'I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one's lungs: all contributed to an appalling effect. I moved on a hundred years, and there was the same red sun—a little larger, a little duller—the same dying sea, the same chill air, and the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out among the green weed and the red rocks. And in the westward sky, I saw a curved pale line like a vast new moon.

The Time Traveller continues into the future, and eventually the ever-larger, ever-duller Sun ends up in the west. Presumably the Earth’s rotation has been greatly slowed, so that the Sun has only crossed the sky once during these jumps, since the Time Traveller never mentions nightfall. The atmosphere is still chilling and thinning: the Time Traveller sees brighter, scarcely twinkling stars.

'So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. Rare white flakes ever and again came eddying down. To the north-eastward, the glare of snow lay under the starlight of the sable sky and I could see an undulating crest of hillocks pinkish white. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses further out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen.

'I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained. A certain indefinable apprehension still kept me in the saddle of the machine. But I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct. A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.’

Our modern theory of stellar evolution eventually has the Sun running out of hydrogen to fuse: at that point it will swell up into a red giant, and start fusing elements of higher atomic number. In contrast, in The Time Machine, the Sun has turned red, and it looks huge in the sky; but it’s still undergoing gravitational contraction, still shrinking. It looks huge because the inner planets — as seen in the next paragraph — and Earth are all travelling in narrower and narrower orbits.

'Suddenly I noticed that the circular westward outline of the sun had changed; that a concavity, a bay, had appeared in the curve. I saw this grow larger. For a minute perhaps I stared aghast at this blackness that was creeping over the day, and then I realized that an eclipse was beginning. Either the moon or the planet Mercury was passing across the sun's disk. Naturally, at first I took it to be the moon, but there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth.

'The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.

'A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.’

Then the final chapter opens with:

‘So I came back....’

There is no sign of Man, or even of land animals now: life has retreated to its ancient home, the sea.

We don’t know exactly how The Time Machine’s earthly life will end; but its time is swiftly passing. It looks, from the growing cold, as if Mr. Wells intended the dying Sun’s radiation to fail before the shrinking orbit of the Earth takes it too close. If so, the Earth will die frozen, in the cold and the dark.

The Wellsian end of the world has some horror to it: but mostly it conveys desolation and despair.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
— T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”.

To The Fading Sun (Part 2)

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