Nov 11 2010 6:18pm

Science of The Night Land: Dying Suns and Earth Energy

The Night Land by William Hope HodgsonStars don’t just flicker out like guttering candles and our sun won’t turn “black as sackcloth” without some considerable advance warning. Still, some of the best imaginations in sci-fi and fantasy applied their minds to visions of worlds bound to waning suns.

Fantasy master Jack Vance’s far-future Dying Earth instantly comes to mind, in which the sun perpetually hangs on the verge of burning out forever. The work inspired a whole subgenre that includes such works as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and most recently Scott Bakker’s Desciple of the Dog.

But of course long before any of this, William Hope Hodgson introduced readers to the Night Land.

Let’s refresh. Published in 1912, The Night Land is one of those books that frustrates as much as it amazes. But if you can get past the book’s babbling, affected prose, there’s a sci-fi/fantasy setting decades ahead of its time. We’re talking a far-future, postapocalyptic world in which the sun has burned out and the remnants of humanity retreat to massive, geothermal-powered pyramids and grow crops in subterranean, hydroponic chambers. Heap on telepaths, spinning disc weapons, posthumans, monsters, and you have an imagined world that retains its wonder nearly a century later.

Now let’s get to the science.

Lord Kelvin Dates the Sun
The Night Land is science fiction, and the science Hodgson turned to was the work of 19th century physicist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson). Kelvin formulated the second law of thermodynamics and set up the absolute temperature scale—but he also theorized that the sun’s luminosity was produced by the conversion of gravitational energy into heat. He argued that the sun’s gravitational energy was spun to life by the impact of the primordial meteors that formed it. Based on this, he gave the sun a life expectancy of 30 million years (the current prediction is 10 billion years total).

A Tidal-Locked Earth
As Hodgson’s fiction stems from Kelvin’s theories, The Night Land is a world in which the sun has gone dark, and tidal drag has slowed the Earth’s rotation to a crawl. As explained here, tidal friction is the very real (but small) force that perpetually slows the planet’s rotation. For instance, scientists theorize that, in about 5 billion years, the planet’s rotation could slow enough to result in a 48-hour day.

In The Night Land, Hodgson depicts a world in which tidal friction eventually causes the Earth to experience tidal lock: the same side of the planet always faces the dimming sun while the other side freezes in eternal night. We observe tidal lock every time we stare into the night sky and witness the moon’s synchronous rotation with the Earth. The same side always faces us. Space blogger Ryan Anderson examines the possibilities of a tidal-locked earth here. He does not, however, mention the possibilities of monstrous abhumans ruling the night.

Heat and Energy in a Sunless World
As mentioned above, the last humans of The Night Land live in a massive metal pyramid called The Last Redoubt. The structure depends on geothermal energy (as well as the less scientific “Earth Current”) to heat and power the enclosure and defend it against the horrors of the night.

As Holly Otterbein points out over at Popular Science, such a scheme might actually work if—again, impossibly—the sun were to go dark without changing mass. She points out that Iceland already heats 87 percent of its homes using geothermal energy, and that volcanic heat could sustain us for hundreds of years. Naturally, nuclear power wasn’t in the cards for Hodgson, but that too could serve as an effective means of heating your giant pyramid against the encroaching darkness.

Red Giants and Reality
Based on our current understanding of stars, we suspect our sun will burn through all its fuel in 4-5 billion years and balloon up into a red giant. In the process, it will gobble up the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth. So, if we’re still around by that point, and we haven’t bothered to colonize other worlds, we’re boned.

Last one up, turn out the lights:

Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News, where he often writes about everything from climate change to video games. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.

Clifton Royston
1. CliftonR
Looks like part of this post is missing?

"Last one up, turn out the lights:" (with terminal colon) seems an odd way to end, and that subsection doesn't refer back to Hodgson as the others do.
Bruce Cohen
2. SpeakerToManagers
Two years ago Greg Bear published "City at the End of Time", an homage to "The Night Land". Part of the intent was to update the timeline and the science based on 21st century physics while keeping the locale and atmosphere of the scenes at the end of time, and part was to build a new story using 21st century american characters for the pastward scenes. I enjoyed it.

That said, I confess I bounced off the original about a quarter of the way through; after awhile I just could not tolerate the prose.
Robert Lamb,
3. RobertLamb
@CliftonR: Oops, sorry about the terminal colon! That's the end of the post.

@SpeakerToManagers: Sounds like I need to grab a copy of "City' pronto. Thanks for the recommendation!

4. Angiportus
I could not get into the Hodgson original either. But someone--forgot who--a few years back did a collection called "Night Lands", short stories in direct pastiche or whatever it was, to the world described therein.
The idea of spinning disc weapons sounds nice, until you recall that they will tend to position themselves in one plane and be hard to shift from it--if my past experience with hand grinders is anything to go from.
Michael Grosberg
5. Michael_GR
Just like the other posters, I couldn't get past Hodgson's prose. Just like the others, I did love the setting. I really liked John C. Wright's story from "Night Lands" - the only story from this collection I read (It was posted online). Perhaps I should give Bear's "City..." a try? I love the early Bear; but later works - Dead Lines and Quantico - not so much.
Robert Lamb,
6. RobertLamb
My tip to anyone thinking about reading "The Night Land" is to just skip the first chapter outright. IT CONTRIBUTES NOTHING.

Only afterwards do you get to stuff like abhumans, psychics and flayed human skins pinnned above the doorway to a world of darkness.

Bruce Cohen
9. SpeakerToManagers
Greg Bear wrote another homage to the Night Land, called "The Way of All Ghosts" IIRC. It's a novellete that takes place in the universe of his novels "Eon", "Eternity", and "Legacy". It was published in an anthology called "Far Horizons", again IIRC.
12. Uncle Fred
I must me in the minority here. I loved the prose (though I to admit, I skipped the first chapter). The writer clearly lays out the feelings and thoughts of this individual experiencing this world. This article entirely misses one of the most facinating technolgies found in the Night Land: Deflector shields! Hodgson’s novel is straight out the first ever fictional conceptualization of this idea. Also, what about the technology behind Arcologies? Or the mental telepathic communication system that in my option, is actually a legacy form of genetically engineered VOIP. It might have been a kind of mental networking technology, far advanced but likely neglected over time. The food and water pill technology is another one. Could this be possible? There are lots of ideas in this novel the article's author overlooked, or more likely, their knowedge of The Night Lands comes from wikipedia.
13. HogdsonRules
To those who said they can' t read Hogdson's prose, you're not worthy of mentionning his name!! Though this book has flaws, the visions depicted in it are so formidable that it's a masterpiece. What's more, the prose is not archaic throughout the whole book, only at times. Don't skip the first chapter either; either you read a book in its entirety or you don't read it at all!! The poem at the very beginning is another proof of Hodgson's skills as a poet and should not be missed. You'd better let go of your preconceived ideas of how an author should write and your modern scifi-for-teens upbringing and acknowledge Hodgson as one of the ultimate masters of the genre. It's absolutely pathetic to see grown-ups unable to make the effort to read something that lies beyond their limited comfort zone. Lovecraft could, Clark Ashton Smith could so it's feasible!!! If you can't don't even discuss his work....
Robert Lamb,
14. RobertLamb
I assure you, I plowed through the book in its entirety. It's not an ordeal one is likely to forget. You can champion his akward, forced prose all you want, but the wonders of Hodgson's immagination are sadly entombed within it. ~rl

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment