The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion
by Edgar Allan Poe

Editor's Notes by Blake Linton Wilfong

      This gem from 1839 is an early example of the "cosmic disaster" science fiction tale, showing how biblical end-of-the-world prophecy might be fulfilled through hard scientific fact. It is also highly imaginative: what better setting for a post-apocalyptic story than the afterlife (which Poe called "Aidenn")?
      Poe set a perfect example for later SF authors by utilizing the best scientific information available at his time. His statement of the proportions of and roles played by the elements in our atmosphere is essentially correct. And, as he explained, comets have little mass compared to their immense apparent sizes. Of course, cometary nuclei are now known to be solid, not gaseous as Poe thought, and Earth has passed through comet tails without incident.
      Still, the kinetic energy of the collision of fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1992 produced fireballs larger than Earth. Poe's vision is not far wrong.

"I will bring fire to thee."
                    Euripides, Andromache

Why do you call me Eiros?

So henceforth shall you always be called. You must forget, too, my earthly name, and call me Charmion.

This is indeed no dream!

Dreams are no more; of these mysteries anon. I rejoice to see you, so lifelike! Your allotted days of stupor have expired; tomorrow, I will teach you the joys and wonders of your novel existence.

Yes, my mind is clear. The wild sickness and terrible darkness are gone, I hear no longer that mad, rushing, horrible sound, "like the voice of many waters". Yet, new sensations bewilder me.

Time will remedy this--but I understand, and feel for you. Ten earthly years ago I underwent what you undergo. You have now suffered all the pain, however, which you will suffer in Aidenn.

Aidenn? Oh, God! Pity me, Charmion! The majesty of all things--of the unknown now known--of speculative Future merged in certain Present, overburdens me.

Grapple not yet with such thoughts. Seek relief in simple memory. I long to hear of that stupendous event which threw you among us. Let us converse of familiar things, of the world which so fearfully perished. Was I much mourned, my Eiros?

Deeply. To the last hour, a cloud of sorrow hung over your household.

Of that last hour, inform me. When I passed into Night through the Grave, the catastrophe which overwhelmed you was utterly unanticipated.

True. Men understood the most holy writings which speak of the final destruction of all things by fire, as referring to Earth alone. And astronomers had mistakenly divested comets of all terror; vapory and tenuous, they had been observed passing among the satellites of Jupiter without disturbing their orbits. We regarded comets as incapable of injuring our substantial globe. That one should cause fiery destruction, seemed absurd.

Nonetheless, the astronomers' announcement of a new comet inspired apprehension. Long had men believed comets portents of ill, heralds of pestilence and war.

Worse, its path, at perihelion, was predicted to bring it into contact with Earth. Laymen steeped in worldly considerations had difficulty grasping this concept, but the truth of a vitally important fact soon becomes apparent to even the most stolid. All men saw that astronomical knowledge lied not, and awaited the comet.

Its approach seemed slow at first. For a week it remained a small, dull glow in the sky. The ordinary affairs of men halted; everyone became absorbed in discussion of the comet. Learned men gave their intellect--their souls--to allaying fear, and to beloved theory. They studied, analyzed, deduced. Truth arose in her purity, strength, and majesty, and the wise fawned and adored.

Scientists proclaimed the comet's nucleus far less dense than our rarest gas. Theologists reminded us that the world must end in fire, and that comets were not fiery. For a brief moment, reason hurled superstition from her throne!

What minor evils might arise were elaborately debated. The learned conjectured slight geological disturbances, alterations in climate, and consequently in vegetation; magnetic and electric influences. Perhaps no perceptible effect would ensue. Meanwhile, the comet gradually approached, growing in apparent diameter and brightness. Mankind paled as it came, despite all reassurances.

When the comet grew larger than any previously recorded visitation, the people felt certainty of evil. Their fears no longer seemed chimerical. The hearts of the stoutest men beat violently within their bosoms. In a few days, however, such feelings merged into sentiments even more unendurable. We could no longer apply to the strange orb any accustomed thoughts. Its historical attributes had disappeared. It oppressed us with a hideous novelty of emotion. More than an astronomical phenomenon, it became an incubus on our hearts, a shadow on our brains. It had taken, inconceivably quickly, the character of a gigantic mantle of rare flame, extending from horizon to horizon.

Another day, and men breathed easier. Clearly already within the comet's influence, we lived. We even felt an unusual elasticity of frame and vivacity of mind. The comet's exceeding tenuity was apparent; heavenly objects were plainly visible through it. Meantime, all vegetation had perceptibly altered, bursting into a luxuriance of foliage, and we gained faith, from this predicted circumstance, in the foresight of the wise.

Yet another day, and the evil was not altogether upon us. The first sense of pain--rigorous constriction of breast and lungs, insufferable dryness of skin--brought widespread lamentation and horror. Our atmosphere was obviously radically altered, and when this alteration was investigated, terror filled the heart of mankind.

The air around us had long been known to consist of 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen gases. Oxygen--the principle of combustion, and vehicle of heat--supported animal life, and was the most powerful, energetic agent in nature. Nitrogen, however, supported neither animal life nor flame. An unnatural excess of oxygen would result, it was ascertained, in such an elevation of animal spirits as we were experiencing. And what would be the result of total extraction of the nitrogen? Combustion irresistible, universal, immediate--the fulfilment of the fiery prophecies of the Holy Book!

Need I paint, Charmion, mankind's unleashed frenzy? That impalpable, tenuous comet would be our doom! Another day passed, along with the last shadow of Hope. We gasped in rapidly changing air, red blood bounding tumultuously through strict channels. Delirium possessed us; arms outstretched toward the threatening heavens, we trembled and screamed. The nucleus of the destroyer was upon us: even here in Aidenn, I shudder while I speak. A wild lurid light glared, penetrating everything. Then--let us bow down, Charmion, before God's majesty!--there came a shouting, pervading sound, as if from HIS mouth; while the very ether about us burst into intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliance and heat even the angels have no name. Thus ended all.

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