I have to confess that my love of asteroids started in film, namely the (admittedly ridiculous) asteroid chase in The Empire Strikes Back. It was solidified by the gloriously melodramatic film Meteor and its shots of the asteroid hurtling towards Earth with the booming “it’s going to kill everyone!” music that played every time it was on screen. I suppose these are why I always smile when an asteroid pops up in the science-fiction I read, which thankfully, has many more imaginative uses for them.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
This novel contains so many concepts to fall in love with, but the idea of terrarium asteroids is my favourite (with sunwalkers a close second!). Robinson writes of a future in which asteroids are hollowed out, and biomes created within, with their own gravity thanks to the rotation of the asteroid. Some are created to preserve delicate ecologies that are no longer sustainable on Earth, some to provide beautiful and exciting environments to visit for holidays or even live in. This use of asteroids is featured in his novel Blue Mars, but in 2312 they have become an art form for the protagonist, Swan Er Hong, a way to express herself as well as serving a need to preserve rare species. I love the idea of hundreds of these asteroids in space, all rocky and unassuming on the outside, but each its own jewel within.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow is a beautiful and heart rending novel which tells a first contact tale in flashbacks as we follow the slow, painful recovery of a Jesuit priest who is the only person to return from a mission to a planet called Rakhat. After detecting a form of music coming from the planet via the SETI project, a crew is formed to go and make contact. Their craft is made from an asteroid mostly hollowed out already by a mining company extracting minerals. I love the idea of using what is considered waste material, sticking an engine on it and hurtling across space inside it.
Eon by Greg Bear
Like many books published in the mid 80’s, the Cold War and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war are both an inspiration and theme in this novel. The Berlin Wall was still very much in place and Bear envisages a near future where the Cold War still rages between the superpowers. Then a massive asteroid appears on the edge of the solar system and moves into orbit and, of course, the superpowers race to understand and claim it. My favourite use of the asteroid in this novel is contained within the seventh chamber which forms The Way, effectively a portal to other dimensions. What’s not to love about that?
Titan by Stephen Baxter
In Titan, Baxter writes of a future which takes America down a just-plausible-enough-to-be-terrifying path of religious extremism and intellectual degradation. It has a fundamentalist Christian President who rules over an isolated country that now teaches its children that the Earth is at the centre of the solar system. This climate of anti-science makes it all the harder for a team of scientists to go and investigate the potential of life on Titan, but after various set-backs and awful events, they manage to get there. In this novel, (spoilers ahead!) an asteroid is used by the Chinese in retaliation for attacks from the US but their plan to merely threaten with it backfires, and it smashes into Earth causing catastrophic damage. Whilst this is a horrific use of an asteroid, I do have a morbid fondness for extinction event stories (thanks Meteor).
The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
Okay, you have to give me a pass for this one because it features meteors, rather than asteroids, but it’s one of my favourite novels and I love the way they are used as a starting point in this ‘cosy catastrophe’ novel. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist and his wife are on the deck of a ship, watching several meteors plummet into the ocean. Of course, the meteors turn out to be an alien invasion. It’s the slow build of the threat this novel which makes it so deliciously tense. Many overlook this novel for the other “meteor shower begins cosy catastrophe” by Wyndham; ‘The Day of the Triffids’, but I urge you to give this one a try if you haven’t already.
Originally published in October 2015.
Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. Between Two Thorns, the first book in Emma’s Split Worlds urban fantasy series, was shortlisted for the BFS Best Novel and Best Newcomer awards. Her science fiction novels Planetfall, After Atlas, and Before Mars are available now from Roc. She is also the author of the Industrial Magic series—Brother’s Ruin and Weaver’s Lament—available from Tor.com.