What is Calamity? Figuring Out Steelheart‘s Big Secret

If you’ve read Brandon Sanderson’s new young adult novel Steelheart by now (And I’m assuming you have, considering how many Sanderson fans are on this site and how quick a read Steelheart is.) then you’re already familiar with the world of Sanderson’s new Earth-based trilogy. A red star dubbed “Calamity” hovers above the planet, bringing about a wave of superpowered individuals, called Epics, have since put the world under their own rule. And things are generally…not fun.

While the initial book in Sanderson’s Reckoner’s trilogy deals with Steelheart—the worst of the Epics—it only gives us a few hints as to what’s going with the source of all this trouble: Calamity. But even with such sparse information, can we deduce what Calamity might be?

Let’s find out! Full spoilers for Steelheart ahead.

Update from THE WORLD OF TOMORROW three years later: Calamity is out! The real answer awaits. (Although the below article has a lot of batty fun with the concept without spoiling it.)

 

Before we take a stab at guessing what Calamity is, we should list out everything we know about it from canonical sources, be it the story itself, the book synopsis, or other official word.

Things We Know About Calamity:

1.) It “burst” into appearance. This seems like a non-clue, but the choice of the word “burst” is actually quite precise when you consider the various astronomical phenomena that Calamity might be. “Burst” is a specific behavior, and narrows down our options a little. Calamity appeared suddenly, not gradually.

2.) It’s red. This is another somewhat non-clue that could turn out to be very helpful. Having your ominous evil star be red is a perfectly logical dramatic choice, but it also allows us to infer certain physical laws that the object dubbed “Calamity” may or may not be obeying.

It all has to do with the color Calamity is showing us. All colors in the visible spectrum have a certain frequency and wavelength that make them that color. (Color is light, and light is made of photons, and photons travel in waves.) Visible light of a high frequency and short wavelength is violet. As that frequency gets lower, the wavelengths of the light get longer, and you move up the rainbow from violet to blue to green to yellow to orange and finally to red.

light spectrum

The human eye can’t see light at lower frequencies than red, which is what’s called infrared light. (If you keep lengthening the wavelength then you eventually get radar, microwaves, and radio.)

This gets more interesting, I promise.

3.) Calamity shines through Nightwielder’s artificial night. As if Calamity wasn’t weird enough. In the book, Steelheart’s henchman Nightwielder is able to block out the light from the sky, blotting out the sun and the stars eternally over the city of Newcago. But Calamity shines through.

This could feasibly be intentional. Maybe Nightwielder instituted a cone of darkness over Newcago, with Calamity as the point. Except Steelheart and the rest of the Epics never mention Calamity, and don’t seem eager to mollify, praise, or destroy it, so why would they bother to include it in their efforts to terrorize the non-powered?

There’s an interesting wrinkle in that Nightwielder’s abilities are affected by ultraviolet light, which is what we call non-visible light with a frequency just a little bit higher than visible violet light. Can Nightwielder only block out light at visible frequencies? Unfortunately, probably not. UV rays make him corporeal, and if he wasn’t blocking those with his powers then he’d be corporeal all of the time, day or night.

Nightwielder is therefore blocking out more light than we can see, which means Calamity shouldn’t be visible regardless of what color it is. Since natural sources of light—the sun, distant stars, supernova—can’t naturally subvert Nightwielder’s powers, then we have to conclude that Calamity is engineered to subvert them. That means there’s a mechanism or intelligence behind Calamity.

4.) It’s often visible above Chicago (sorry Newcago), day or night. The book is hazy on this aspect of Calamity. David mentions that it’s present during the daytime during the prologue, and it seems omnipresent during the events of the book. If Calamity is always hovering above North America then that means it’s in a geostationary orbit above that part of the planet i.e. its orbit matches the rotational speed of the planet.

In itself, this concept isn’t exceptional. We put satellites in geostationary orbits all of the time. Keeping something geostationary over Chicago would take some orbital adjustment, though, which means some person or agency would have to keep watch over Calamity to see that its orbit doesn’t decay or shift. Who might be doing that? Are they even here on the planet?

It’s also possible that Calamity spends only the majority of its time in orbit above the northern hemisphere, but is visible to the entire planet at certain points. This is hard to ascertain, as we don’t get a lot of information about Epics in other parts of the world. (There’s an Irish one, and some talk of a rival Epic ruler in Latin America, apparently.) If Calamity does circle the globe, but spends most of its time visible to the U.S., then it must be in a highly elliptical orbit. Meaning that it essentially slingshots around the Earth, spending a short time in the sky over one side of the planet, where it rises and sets very quickly, and most of its time in the sky on the other side, where it stays visible in the sky for days or weeks on end.

Like this:

Steelheart Brandon Sanderson what is Calamity

5.) Calamity needs to be easily explainable. This isn’t a directive from the story, but a reality of young adult narratives. If this were a heavy science fiction novel aimed at adults, you could get away with a detailed explanation that assumes some knowledge of physics from the reader. In young adult stories, however, everything is simplified, and that includes the science. Explaining Calamity during the story in the same long-winded manner as this article would drain the reveal of its impact and kill the story. And Sanderson can’t kill a reveal this big, because….

6.) Calamity is our Big Bad. This isn’t stated in the story of Steelheart but since the final book in this trilogy is titled Calamity and Calamity is the origin of all of these superpowers, it’s a surefire bet that it’s the final villain and/or problem that needs to be tackled. And just what kind of thing Calamity is will eventually be the primary motivator of the story, which means the reveal will be the most dramatic non-character plot reveal. Revealing what Calamity is is by far the most important aspect of Calamity, although there is one other aspect that comes in a close second….

7.) It needs to be something that can be affected, destroyed, or nullified from the surface of the Earth. The Reckoners are resourceful, but come on, our hero David doesn’t even know how to drive a car and has less education than your typical high schooler. There’s no way he’s getting into space. That means that whatever Calamity is can probably be shut down from the surface of the Earth.

What Does This Make Calamity?

Now that we’ve listed out all the aspects of Calamity that we’re aware of, let’s see what kind of object would best satisfy them.

1.) Is Calamity a comet or other cosmic phenomenon? This is certainly the first thing that comes to mind, but there are a few things that rule out a comet.

The biggest is that comets are extremely unlikely to be caught in Earth’s gravity in such a manner that the comet would orbit us for ten years. (In Steelheart Calamity has been present for a decade.) Comets themselves are in elliptical orbits around our sun. So when a comet comes zooming in to the inner solar system, they’re being pulled in by the sun and are going too fast for Earth’s gravity to catch.

It’s possible that Earth could “capture” a comet as it’s heading back out to the outer portions of our solar system—moving away from the sun means it’s slowly shedding speed as it travels—but this would result in an elliptical orbit that was continually shifting as it stabilized around the Earth. Calamity would never be in the same spot in the sky after it was initially spotted, as it appears to be in the books.

Calamity as a comet, asteroid, moon, or even a planet also doesn’t explain why Nightwielder can’t block it out or how it “burst” into the sky. Any incoming object would appear gradually in the sky as it neared our planet.

So maybe it’s not a comet? Maybe it’s a distant supernova or gamma ray burst, and the radiation from those events are triggering superpowers? Maybe. But probably not. A gamma ray burst would conceivably pierce Nightwielder’s veil, and gamma rays have a nice thematic parallel to the comics that Steelheart is obviously inspired by, but that wouldn’t explain Calamity’s persistent presence in the sky or how everyone under Calamity’s burst of gamma rays isn’t dead. (If you imagine the cells that make up our body as mob informants, then gamma rays are the wood chipper in the quiet cabin outside the city.) Ditto for supernova, although without all the death of biological organisms.

So Calamity isn’t “natural.” What else could it be?

Steelheart Brandon Sanderson what is Calamity2.) Is Calamity a dimensional portal? If Calamity can’t be a natural cosmic or scientific phenomena, maybe it can be something totally made up! Who knows what would happen if another dimensional plane burst open a portal into ours? Last time there were kaiju, maybe this time there’s special radiation that only targets evil people because the dimension is one of PURE EVIL. Maybe Nightwielder’s powers don’t block it because his and all of the Epics powers go away if he tries.

Calamity as a dimensional portal fits everything we know about Calamity so far. Oh. But wait. How do you stop a dimensional portal that has its own physical laws, of which we know nothing? Hm.

3.) Is Calamity aliens? What if you were an alien race trying to wipe out resistance on a populated planet without leaving the comfort of your ship? Maybe you’d shine a beam on us that gives us superpowers and makes us evil, then watch us tear each other apart.

That would explain your weird orbit, and the fact that you suddenly appeared in the sky, and why you can still be seen when the superpowers you’ve granted to the populace should technically blot you out of the sky.

It would also be really satisfying to take you down, “welcome to erf!” style. To show how humanity still strives for justice even when we are staggeringly outclassed by the powers of evil. Heroes will always rise to the occasion, regardless of power! A lesson you shifty aliens learned too late.

“Aliens” as the answer to what Calamity is actually fits what we know about Calamity pretty well. The main objection would be in the details of their plan. If they can grant superpowers to us from orbit, why not just nuke us from orbit?

Maybe the aliens are raising an army? Perhaps they grant superpowers but can also coerce those who receive powers. That would certainly fit with the struggles we see Prof undergo at the end of Steelheart. The more he uses his powers, the more it seems a separate personality asserts control over his free will.

Aliens seem like the most likely answer here, but there’s one more possibility we haven’t considered.

4.) Is it all a hologram or simulation? Maybe this is a test being run by…someone…to determine whether a superpowered populace is a wise course of action. Calamity is therefore the holographic transmitter.

In terms of theories, this also fits with what we currently know about Calamity. Unfortunately, it’s also a terrible idea, and Sanderson undoubtedly knows that.

Granted, Calamity doesn’t have to obey physical laws or be mindful of how orbits and light work, so a lot of this might never play into what Calamity ultimately ends up being. Maybe it’s an evil living planet that travels the universe messing with people because, hey, being an evil living planet can be super boring when there’s so much space to traverse.

But that’s okay. It’s fun to speculate and play detective, even if we’re ultimately wrong. That’s half the fun of reading science fiction and fantasy! So I leave the question to you, readers. What is Calamity?


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is mostly hoping Calamity turns out to be Calamity Jane from Deadwood.

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