Sometimes the clearest vision of what’s ahead comes from a frank look at what’s behind us.
Does anyone here remember Philip Wylie? In his day he was a successful writer of fiction and non-fiction. His 1930 novel Gladiator is believed to be one of the seminal influences on the comic-book character Superman. But most who are aware of him today remember his two novels When Worlds Collide (1933) and After Worlds Collide (1934), which he co-wrote with Edwin Balmer.
Literary style has changed greatly since the Thirties. Many who stumble upon these books today find them uncongenial. Even in its time, reviewers were dismissive of When Worlds Collide. In part that was a criticism of Wylie’s overt use of the Great Deluge and Noah’s Ark, one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament, as his inspiration for the story. But in equal part it was because he was unashamed to quote the Bible in the text. Consider the following segment, from shortly after the scientists at the thematic center of the story confirm that the Earth is doomed. The speaker is Eve Hendron, daughter of physicist Cole Hendron and beloved of the major protagonist, stockbroker and man about New York Tony Drake:
“We’re in a very solemn time, Tony. I spent a lot of to-day doing a queer thing—for me. I got to reading the Book of Daniel again—especially Belshazzar’s feast. I read that over and over. I can remember it, Tony.
“‘Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
“‘They brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God; and the king, and his princes, his wives and his concubines, drank in them.
“‘They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.’
“Isn’t that a good deal like what we’ve—most of us—been doing, Tony?”
“‘Now in the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
“‘Then the king’s countenance was changed; his knees smote together. The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the soothsayers.’
“And Daniel, you may remember, interpreted the writing on the wall. ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting. And in that night was Belshazzar, the king of the Chaldeans, slain.’
“It is something very like that which is happening to us now, Tony; only the Finger, instead of writing again on the wall, this time has taken to writing in the sky—over our heads. The Finger of God, Tony, has traced two little streaks in the sky—two objects moving toward us, where nothing ought to move; and the message of one of them is perfectly plain.
“‘Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting,’ that one says to us on this world. ‘God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it.’ But what does the other streak say?
“That is the strange one, Tony—the one that gives you the creeps and the thrills when you think of it. For that is the afterthought of God—the chance He is sending us!
“Remember how the Old Testament showed God to us, stern and merciless. ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth!’ it said. ‘And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth. And the Lord said, I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man, and beast and the creeping things, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. And then, God thought it over and softened a little; and He warned Noah to build the ark to save himself and some of the beasts, so that they could start all over again.
“Well, Tony, it seemed to me the second streak in the sky says that God is doing the same thing once more. He hasn’t changed His nature since Genesis; not in that short time. Why should He? It seemed to me, Tony, He looked us all over again and got disgusted.
“Evolution, you know, has been going on upon this world for maybe five hundred million years; and I guess God thought that, if all we’d reached in all that time was what we have now, He’d wipe us out forever. So He started that streak toward us to meet us, and destroy us utterly. That’s Bronson Alpha. But before He sent it too far on its way, maybe He thought it all over again and decided to send Bronson Beta along too.
“You see, after all, God had been working on the world for five hundred millions of years; and that must be an appreciable time, even to God. So I think He said, ‘I’ll wipe them out; but I’ll give some of them a chance. If they’re good enough to take the chance and transfer to the other world I’m sending them, maybe they’re worth another trial. And I’ll save five hundred millions of years.’ For we’ll start on the other world, Tony, where we left off here.”
Who, among the speculative fiction writers of today, would dare to use the Deluge and Noah as the pattern for a tale, much less to quote the Book of Daniel? Is there anyone with the courage and willingness required to look to the Bible for his inspiration? Never mind whether the tale of the Deluge and the Ark is literally true. No one knows, and no one can. The tale itself is the thing: its open paralleling of God’s wrath as narrated in Genesis to an astrophysical calamity that would make all the rest of human experience seem trivial.
Wylie’s other fiction includes similar stories of world-girdling disasters. But his explicit use of a famous Biblical narrative, and the implications it held for Mankind’s past, present, and future, are what I find most striking today – more than eighty years since the publication of When Worlds Collide, and more than fifty years since I first encountered it.
Time was, a Hollywood producer might bring out a movie about the ministry, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ and title it King of Kings, or The Greatest Story Ever Told, release it to the theaters, and “pack ‘em in.” People were inspired by such movies, as well as being entertained. Movies founded on Old Testament tales, such as The Ten Commandments, were equally popular. These stories were acknowledged to be important elements in Americans’ cultural heritage. We weren’t embarrassed by them; rather the reverse.
Thigs are different today. Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was greeted by dark and ominous forebodings from critics before its release. Many a theatergoer was derided for saying he wanted to see it, or for praising it afterward. The Old Testament tale of the Deluge was rewritten as an enviro-Nazi tract for Noah. The moral and ethical elements of the original tale were absent from it. Despite the presence of Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, and several other big-ticket stars, the movie was about as large a disaster at the box office as the Deluge of which it spoke.
The Bible’s various stories are morally and ethically aimed. Such things make producers uneasy in our time. I trust I need not thrash this into the magma layer for my Gentle Readers to get my drift.
When Worlds Collide doesn’t depart from contemporary practice solely in its antecedents. Wylie had a point to make: the one that Eve Hendron made in the segment I quoted above. Beyond that, it stands as an example of unabashedly dramatic storytelling, told in a fluid and grandiloquent style that critics have dismissed as “florid.” Rereading it after a fifty year hiatus has reminded me of what’s possible to a writer who ignores contemporary fads and fashions and hews resolutely to his own conceptions, preferences, and style.
Sometimes, to get a sense for where one should go, one must look behind: at where he has been, but also where others have gone before him.