Monday, March 9, 2020

When A Star Dies!

Or: "When Worlds... er, Stories Collide!"

Two similar plots, playing out just nine months apart in the pages of Strange Tales and Tales Of Suspense, would have a single and similar catalyst: Our sun, the star which nurtures and sustains the planet Earth, was suddenly and inexplicably dying, leaving the planet's population to quickly devise a solution for the survival of all mankind. And it's the former title which produces a cover to give us a dramatic sense of this sort of premise.

While inside, each story offers a symbolic splash page which gives a hint of how their plots will play out:

While both stories will focus on the human race attempting to escape its fate, these opening pages already provide contrast as to what approach each story will take toward that end. "The Last Rocket!", from Tales Of Suspense, clearly indicates that Earth's population is leaving Earth, presumably to hopefully locate a suitable world orbiting a healthy star--while the page from the earlier "When A Planet Dies!" story in Strange Tales tells us that the human race either could not or would not leave, instead resigned to seemingly face certain death. (The cover caption goes further in conveying the impression that most of the population had left the Earth and abandoned the rest, though we would learn otherwise).

Comparing the two as a whole, one can't help but come away with the feeling that the TOS story is recycling the earlier tale, particularly as the two share very similar endings. Yet in all fairness, these five- to seven-page stories that conformed to the mystery/sci-fi format of the day were churned out three or four to an issue for years, which made overlapping plots either a likelihood or a convenience that didn't garner much scrutiny from their reading audience. Fortunately, there are enough dissimilarities present to make each of these stories entertaining enough in their own right, as well as a testament to the storytelling of the genre at the time.

"When A Planet Dies" strikes one noticeable difference right from the start, with its two sage-like figures watching from afar who debate throughout the story whether the efforts of the Earthlings to save themselves will amount to anything; indeed, the scientists working on the problem reach the reasonable conclusion that leaving their world will not save them, given that their limited space flight capability prevents their ships from leaving the solar system. And so they turn to the only source of heat left to them--the Earth's core itself.

Yet even though civilization thrives in this new existence beneath the surface, there are those born to the next generation who are not content to spend the entirety of their lives within the confines of what has essentially become a vast survival shelter within a world no longer habitable.

Since the story has narrowed its focus to the characters Rackozo Roor and Johnn, it's fair to assume that at least Rackozo, whose discontent has reached the point where he feels compelled to act, will spur some crisis for the subterranean inhabitants that will threaten their continued survival--though that proves to be true only indirectly, as the true crisis actually arrives in the form of a decision to be made which will prove to our "watchers" in the heavens whether or not mankind has indeed become worthy of its destiny.

In the later story, pencilled and inked by none other than 36-year-old Gene Colan, we join a couple who are drawn into a similar planetary emergency--but while the rest of the world's population prepares to abandon the Earth, they are adamant about remaining and linking their fate to that of their home world.

As is evident, this couple's outlook is dismal, as they contemplate an all-too-brief existence in eerie solitude while the clock ticks down to what will be their final hours and moments of life on their doomed world.  It's easy enough to wonder what rationalization these two are employing in consigning themselves to certain death; after all, their world's entire population has just rocketed off to survive elsewhere, thereby preserving the history and civilization that this couple values so deeply.

But just as was the case in their sister story, there is new life aborning in the heavens which provides renewed hope for these last two inhabitants, whose faith is this tale's true driving force--and there is room for a twist to this story's ending that, in one form or another, isn't all that unique in the annals of science fiction.

No, I don't have any idea how Eve can tell at a glance that their planet has settled into orbit of the new star, much less an orbital distance that would prove safe for human life as well as the planet itself. But why spoil the moment for these two cockeyed optimists?


Anonymous said...

You've got to laugh at the total lack of scientific knowledge in these stories. Billions of years from now the sun will indeed become a cold "white dwarf" but before that happens it will massively increase in size and become a "red giant", probably swallowing up the Earth in the process.
I remember reading the first story in a British reprint comic when I was about 12, but even at that age I knew the sun couldn't burn out like a lump of coal :D

Big Murr said...

Jeez...even in 1963 that "Adam and Eve" punchline was a pathetic cliche. That makes "When a Planet Dies" winner by default, but even without that ruling, it had a more rock'em sock'em sci-fi appeal.

Anonymous said...

I gotta say, though, fellas, that is one heck of a cover. That giant orange moon looming in the sky like the death planet from Melancholia. Eerie! That's the sort of cover that grabs the eyeballs.
Spinner-rack bait, I tells ya.


Comicsfan said...

Colin, there are a lot of dubious science claims taking place in these two stories--I'm amazed you were able to pick just one to note!

Murray, I can almost swear that the old series "The Twilight Zone" made use of that cliche, as well, but I can't be certain--maybe "The Outer Limits"? Anyone care to verify?

M.P., you just had to mention "Melancholia," didn't you? When that film ended, I sighed and thought wearily, "That's two hours of my life I'll never get back..."

Anonymous said...

C.F., my brother had the same reaction.
I, however, found it oddly compelling...
I shudder to think what that implies.


Anonymous said...

C.F., it just occurred to me. There was an episode of the Twilight Zone with a young Charles Bronson and a young Elizabeth Montgomery. (who was later in Bewitched.)
They were two people left behind after an apocalyptic war.
Maybe that's what you're thinking of.


Big Murr said...

"Literary note: the "Adam and Eve" plot is mentioned (in a bad way) in many articles and books on writing science fiction stories. Apparently it was, for many years, one of the most over-used twist endings in the badly written stories that make up the editors' mountainous "slush pile" of wasted efforts - in fact, many editors would reject stories with this twist on sight."

It was once easy to find such Rules of SF Writing online, but I am dismayed at how they've apparently disappeared. The modern internet kinda sucks.

The TV Tropes links to the pair of Twilight Zone episodes that did this story twist.

Comicsfan said...

Murray, you're the bloodhound of trivia. What an interesting (and amusing) article. (M.P., you remembered correctly!)