Life on Earth is most likely doomed…in a billion years or so. The Sun’s slowly increasing luminosity will trigger a runaway greenhouse effect like that seen on Venus. Later stages in stellar evolution will further sear the Earth into an airless husk (unless the red giant sun simply gobbles up the planet like a piece of candy). Oh woe is us!
The following five tales of dying worlds might be of some interest during this interesting time. Remember: when the prospect of yet another Zoom meeting provokes anxiety and loathing, we can always tell ourselves that it could be worse…
“The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
Human starships dispatched to a distant star system discover that the system once harboured life. More than that, it was home to an advanced civilization. Emphasis on “was”; the massive star at the heart of the system has long since gone supernova . Since the aliens had not mastered interstellar starflight, they died with their star. Refusing to be erased entirely, the aliens left a complete record of their history in a secure vault on a world in the outskirts of their doomed system. If not for the vault, humans would have no idea that the aliens had ever existed.
Destroyed by natural forces before they could escape their system, it might seem the aliens lived for naught. The expedition’s astrophysicist fears that the truth might be far worse: that the aliens died for a purpose that horrifies the human scientist.
Night of Masks by Andre Norton (1964)
Disfigured in war, relegated to a refugee oubliette known as the Dipple, it’s unlikely that orphan Nik Kolherne will ever escape misfortune through legitimate means. When criminals offer to repair the young man’s face in return for certain illicit services, Nik agrees.
Said services seem innocent enough: pose as fictional hero Hacon. The catch is this is part of a ruse to manipulate naïve kidnap victim Vandy. Nik belatedly regrets his excursion into criminality, but by that time he and Vandy escape from Nik’s employers, Nik and Vandy are on forbidding Dis, a world of perpetual night under an invisible star, left nearly lifeless by an enormous solar flare. Almost lifeless, that is, save for the ravenous monsters hiding in the eternal dark.
…And All the Stars a Stage by James Blish (1971)
An exploding star led Jorn Birn’s people to discover the secrets of controlled nuclear fusion. This technology bestowed unparalleled wealth on Jorn’s world…but not on Jorn, who has the bad luck to be male in a world with altogether too many men, men who are thus surplus to requirements. In this world, women rule and it’s a lucky man who finds a woman willing to support him.
A quirk of stellar evolution renders moot an otherwise tediously regrettable example of flipped gender roles: The star around which Jorn’s home world orbits is as doomed as the star that gave his people fusion. If they do nothing, Jorn’s people are doomed as well. When the world is burning, it does not matter who is in charge.
A vast fleet of interstellar ships is hastily assembled, crewed, and launched. The crew, Jorn among them, escape the explosion that consumes their world. It’s just too bad that the fleet doesn’t know where it is going; it was launched in the hope that a second habitable world existed somewhere out in the galaxy. The dwindling fleet checks planet after planet and finds no suitable option. Is the fleet doomed to roam until the ships fail?
“Sun Up” by A.A. Jackson IV and Howard Waldrop (1976)
Dispatched by relativistic ramjet, the robot exploration ship Saenger arrives at its red giant destination and discovers that the star is far more interesting than expected. It is only a year away from going supernova. This will be fascinating for the scientists back on Earth, who are receiving superluminal communications from the Saenger. Bully for science! And there is no indigenous life in the system , so there’s no need to be sad.
But wait! Saenger isn’t indigenous, but it is sentient in its own right. It doesn’t have the resources it would need to flee the system and there is no time to resupply the ship in the time available. It seems that all the robot can do is wait for certain doom.
This is the first time that an AI will knowingly face death. What will it do? What can it do? Is there a way out of this trap?
A Dead God Dancing by Ann Maxwell (1979)
A nearby supernova nearly sterilized Tal-Lith millennia ago. Now its errant home star will finish the job with a massive solar flare. Tal-Lith’s impending doom forces the star-spanning Concord to reconsider its non-interference policy regarding pre-spaceflight cultures like Tal-Lith. A covert contact team is dispatched to prepare the handful of natives for relocation to a new home world.
Tal-Lith is one minor world among many. The Concord does not pay close attention to such worlds. As a consequence, impending doom was discovered at the last moment. Rather than carefully selecting agents who are most suitable for the task, the Concord is forced to use those who are immediately available. The result is a collection of strangers, ill-suited to teamwork…one of whom has their own, incredibly dangerous agenda.
No doubt I have overlooked worthy examples. No doubt you are even now reaching for your keyboard. The comment section is waiting for you below.
1: Clarke liked exploding suns enough for the idea to turn up over and over in his work (I could have mentioned “The Songs of Distant Earth” or “Rescue Party” in this essay, but didn’t.) But he also suspected suns of inconveniently dimming; for example, in “Fountains of Paradise” and “History Lesson,” humans face problems caused by stellar cooling. Too bad that stars are fundamentally unreliable.
2: It’s usual for writers to imagine an inhabited world faced with a looming supernova. Cue up the suspense, cue up the drama! But astronomy has no respect for narrative needs. In reality, there are only a few kinds of stars that are prone to supernova-ing and none of them are conducive to terrestrial worlds with complex life. For that matter, supernovas also don’t care about human impatience; the supernova candidate nearest to Earth is due to explode any day now as stars measure time. That’s one hundred thousand years, plus or minus, for you and me. Hat tip to Valerie Valdes’ “Prime Deceptions: A Novel,” which features a doomed star system whose UNAVOIDABLE DEMISE! won’t happen for millennia and is completely irrelevant to the plot.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.