Revisiting Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's science fiction classic When Worlds Collide is a wonderful, interesting experience. First, there are the numerous topics that would be looked upon today as politically, environmentally, and socially incorrect: the smoking of cigarettes, big-game hunting in pursuit of trophies, calling the Japanese Japs, the use of asbestos as insulation in spaceships, and reporters acting as reporters rather than makers of news. In addition, imagine what $10,000 was worth in 1932, and compare it to what that amount would be worth today! Second, the science set forth in the book is surprisingly accurate for stories written nearly 70 years ago. For example, the location and amount of seismic damage caused by the first passing of the Bronson planets are amazingly depicted, considering the location of the plate tectonic boundaries that we are aware of todayboundaries not recognized until the 1960s. Likewise, the probability of a major earthquake in the New Madrid, Missouri, area such as that presented in the novel is strong, although the likelihood of major lava flows is not. The presence of volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean, the "Ring of Fire," with ash drifting eastward, is well presented. The depictions of atmospheric processes, such as the hurricanelike winds in the Great Plains, also are realistic, and the design of the solar system that the Bronson planets came from is presented in a scientific manner.
Still, problems with the science that is presented abound. To name just a few, the finding of the type of metal that was used for the atomic engines in the story is difficult to understand, the projection of the earth's population at 1.5 billion isway short of the actual numbers, and the presentation of the age of the earth as 500 million years old is considerably short of the actual age believed today, 4.6-5.0 billion years old. Add to these the depiction of Pluto as being in the same orbital plane as the rest of the planets and the projection of Venus' temperatures as 151 degrees Fahrenheit (way short of the actual temperatures of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit, due to the large greenhouse effect on the planet), and it becomes quite clear that the novel is by no means contemporary.
Finally, John Varley's introduction is well written, presenting the important idea of trying to imagine what a number such as a decillion really means. One wonders whether anyone can imagine a billion trillion trillion! The discussion of this number is representative of the originality of the book. When Worlds Collide is as exciting and mind opening today as when it was originally written. Highly Recommended, Grades 5-College, Teaching Professional, General Audience. REVIEWER: Dr. Paul K. Grogger (University of Colorado)