Saturday, February 18, 2017

Zothique, Aldebaran, Proxima b

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Abominations of Yondo” (1926) may be the inaugural work in the author’s fascinating cycle of stories set in the decadent world of Zothique.  Several of the Zothique stories feature an enlarged, crimson sun, a red giant emblematic of decline and deterioration, illuminating a world that ends “not with a bang but a whimper”.  

A “red giant” is the name given to the terminal phase in the natural history of many stars, when solar metabolism and fuel supply begin to dwindle and collapse, not unlike a flame.  Not every star becomes a red giant; whether it does so is determined by the particulars of its evolution, size and composition.  As the star uses up its hydrogen fuel source, its inner core begins to contract gravitationally, lowering the surface temperature and changing its color; the increasing destabilization also causes the star to expand outward like an inflating balloon.  The decrepit star eventually finishes as a white dwarf, a neutron star or a black dwarf, a mere spark or ember of what once burned brightly. 

Here is an example of Smith’s description of the red sun in “The Abominations of Yondo”, discussed in more detail in the previous post:

Before me, under a huge sun of sickly scarlet, Yondo reached interminable as the land of a hashish-dream against the black heavens.

And a similar passage from “The Empire of the Necromancers” (1932):

I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.

Finally, an example from a story published about ten years after Smith wrote about the desert of Yondo, from “The Dark Eidolon” (1935):

On Zothique, the last continent of Earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood.

There are at least 13 other stories in the Zothique cycle, of varying quality.  Besides a ruddy, enfeebled sun overhead, they share a characteristic preoccupation with suffering, despair, and dissolution. Often they superficially resemble Lord Dunsany’s early stories—see Time and the Gods (1906), for example—with their exotic settings, fable-like structure and unpronounceable place and character names.  But Smith’s work in general is distinctively darker and more sensually vivid.

The image of a red giant also occurs in some of Smith’s science fiction stories.  In “The Monster of the Prophecy” (1932) the protagonist is transported to the planet Satabbor, where he must cope with, among other things, a blindingly enlarged sun overhead.  “Where am I?” he asks. His host tells him

“You are on my country estate, in Ulphalor, a kingdom which occupies the whole northern hemisphere of Satabbor, the inmost planet of Sanarda, that sun which is called Antares in your world…”

One of Smith’s more interesting forays into science fiction, “The Monster of the Prophecy” is marred only by his use of the pulp convention of giving extraterrestrial characters and locations consonant heavy names like “Vizaphmal” and “Abbolechiolor”. (See also With Friends Like These…)  Socio-linguistically speaking, why is it assumed that extraterrestrials will have tongue-twisters for names, while less technologically developed creatures are reduced to using monosyllabic grunts for identification?

Antares, (a.k.a. “Sanarda” in Smith’s story) is a red giant, one of the brightest stars in the sky, found in the constellation Scorpius.  If Antares was our sun, its outer surface would extend into the region of the solar system between Mars and Jupiter.  Its radius is nearly 883 times that of our sun.  Most readers have heard that our sun will eventually become a red giant, engulfing the inner planets in cataclysmic fiery destruction.  But this will not happen for another 5 billion years, unfortunately.  (“It’s going to be beautiful”, as the President would say.)

Another example of a red giant that was known to Smith and his colleagues was Aldebaran, which received considerable scientific attention around the time that Smith was writing.  Stellar astronomy made significant advances in the first few decades of the 20th century.  The well-known Hertzspung-Russell Diagram, which categorizes stars into various types based on brightness, spectral pattern, color, temperature and evolutionary stage was finalized around 1913.  Famed astronomer Arthur Eddington determined how the luminosity of a star is related to its mass in 1924.  As Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft were beginning their careers in weird fiction in the early to mid-1920s, scientists were able to measure the size and spectral pattern of Aldebaran, a star actually known since antiquity.

Lovecraft uses Aldebaran to playfully mock the “Star of Bethlehem” in his holiday-themed “The Festival” (1925):

…and I saw that all the travelers were converging as they flowed near a sort of focus of crazy alleys at the top of a high hill in the centre of the town, where perched a great white church.  I had seen it from the road’s crest when I looked at Kingsport in the new dusk, and it had made me shiver because Aldebaran had seemed to balance itself a moment on the ghostly spire.  

In the news this week there was some speculation about the possibilities of life on Proxima B, an earth-sized planet orbiting in the habitable zone around a star named Proxima Centauri.  Alert readers may surmise that Proxima Centauri is in the star system Alpha Centauri, one of three stars arranged in orbit with each other.  (Alpha Centauri is where the Space Family Robinson was headed before a rogue swarm of asteroids knocked the Jupiter 2 off course in the 1965 show Lost in Space.  “Danger, Will Robinson!”)

Proxima Centauri is only 4.22 lightyears from earth, the closest star to our sun.  Proxima B, its most interesting companion, joins the nearly 3000 exoplanets discovered so far, detected chiefly by aberrations in their suns’ orbital patterns or because of oscillations in light energy as the planets cross between their sun and Earth.  Proxima B theoretically could support life.  Because it orbits within the habitable zone, liquid water may be present on the surface, and the planet’s mass and composition may support a viable atmosphere.

However, Proxima Centauri, the planet’s sun, is a red dwarf, a relatively cooler star compared to our own.  It is also more likely to have intense solar flare activity with accompanying x-ray and ultraviolet radiation.  Red dwarves are the most frequently occurring type of star and the longest lived of star types.  In fact, the universe has not existed long enough for scientists to study their natural history—they are all still too “young”.   

The planet Proxima B is 10-20 times close to its star than Earth is to our sun.  Because of the lower temperature, planets encircling red dwarfs must have much closer orbits in order to fall within the habitable zones around these stars. Unfortunately, the proximity to strong solar radiation would likely remove most of the hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process of ionization.  

Without the possibility of water, a planet within the habitable zone of a red dwarf is likely to be uninhabitable, at least for life as we know it.  No life will evolve there, much less dwindle beneath a decaying crimson sun in the far future.  The star will endure seemingly forever, but life will never begin in that solar system.  Proxima B is already dead, not merely dying, as in Zothique aeons hence.  Sad!