The Star
by H. G. Wells

Editor's Notes by Blake Linton Wilfong

      First published in 1897, "The Star" is one of the most often reprinted science fiction short stories ever, rivaling in popularity Arthur C. Clarke's 1956 Hugo Award-winning tale of the same name.
      Why such enduring success? Partly because "The Star" combines the mythic theme of worldwide cataclysm with the reality of science. The threat that such a disaster could actually happen seems infinitely greater when based on science rather than superstition.
      But the same can be said for Edgar Allan Poe's tiny 1839 story "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion". And Wells' science is inaccurate. If Neptune's orbit was halted by a collision as "The Star" suggests, its initial acceleration toward the sun would be less than 0.00001 meters per second per second. It would take years to reach Earth. Wells probably knew this, but compressed the timeline to make the story more exciting.
      No, the reason for the lasting fame of "The Star" is its masterful craftsmanship. It is a work of literary art, at once terrifying and awe-inspiring, hellish and beautiful, brutal and poetic. Best of all, its surprising final paragraph lends a humbling new perspective to the entire tale.
      Trivia: Ogilvy, the astronomer briefly mentioned in "The Star", plays a major role in Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1898). Alas, he is killed by a martian heat-ray in Chapter 6.
      The color frontispiece illustration, by William Small (1843-1929) appeared in the original publication of "The Star" in the December 25, 1897 issue of The Graphic. The other illustration accompanied a reprint in the June, 1926 issue of Amazing Stories.

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of Neptune, outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such news scarcely interested a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause much excitement. Scientists, however, found these events remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without training in science can realize the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for 20 million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to the very nearest stars. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the 20th century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely measurable diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. Soon an opera glass could attain it.

On the third day of the new year the newspaper readers of two hemispheres became aware for the first time of the real importance of this unusual apparition in the heavens. "A Planetary Collision," one London paper headed the news, and proclaimed Duchaine's opinion that this strange new planet would probably collide with Neptune. Lead writers enlarged on the topic, so that in most of capitals of the world, on January 3rd, there was an expectation, however vague, of some imminent phenomenon in the sky; and as night followed sunset around the globe, thousands of men turned their eyes skyward to see--the old familiar stars just as they had always been.

Until it was dawn in London and Pollux setting and the stars overhead grown pale. The Winter's dawn it was, a sickly filtering accumulation of daylight, and the light of gas and candles shone yellow in the windows where people were astir. But yawning policemen saw the thing, busy crowds in the markets stopped agape, workmen rushing to work, milkmen, drivers, homeless wanderers, and in the country, laborers trudging afield, poachers slinking home, all over the dusky quickening country it could be seen--and out at sea by seamen watching for the day--a great white star, come suddenly into the westward sky!

Brighter it was than any star in our skies, brighter than the evening star at its brightest. An hour after daybreak, it still glowed out white and large, no mere twinkling spot of light, but a small round clear shining disk. And where science has not reached, men stared and feared, telling one another of war and pestilence foreshadowed by these fiery signs in the Heavens. Sturdy Boers, dusky Hottentots, Gold Coast Negroes, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, stood in the warmth of the sunrise watching the setting of this strange new star.

In a hundred observatories there had been suppressed excitement, rising almost to shouting pitch, as the two remote bodies had rushed together; and a hurrying to and fro, to gather photographic apparatus and spectroscope, to record this novel astonishing sight, the destruction of a world. For it was a world, a sister planet of our Earth, far greater than Earth indeed, that had so suddenly flashed into flaming death. Neptune had been struck, squarely, by the strange planet from outer space, and the heat of the concussion had turned two solid globes into one vast incandescent mass. Around the world that day, two hours before dawn, went the pallid great white star, fading only as it sank westward and the sun mounted above it.

Everywhere men marveled at it, but of all those who saw it none could have marveled more than those sailors, habitual stargazers, who far away at sea had heard nothing of its advent and saw it now rise like a pygmy moon and climb zenithward and hang overhead and sink westward with the passing of the night.

And when next it rose over Europe, everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on rooftops, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight. "It is larger," they cried. "It is brighter!" And indeed, the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried people clustering in the streets. But in dim observatories astronomers held their breath and peered at one another. "It is nearer," they said. "Nearer!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realization, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to passersby. "It is nearer." Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between dances, and feigned intelligent interest. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It should be nearer, for the night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination, puzzled it out for himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this--!

"Do we come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. It was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. "Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fireflies hovered. "That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white vial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then returned at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Halfway up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys, and steeples of the city, hung the star.

He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. "You may kill me," he said after a silence. "But I can hold you and all the universe in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now."

He looked at the vial. "There will be no need for sleep again," he said. The next day at noon--punctual to the minute, he entered his lecture hall, put his hat on the end of the table as was his habit, and carefully selected a large piece of chalk. It was a joke among his students that he could not lecture without that piece of chalk to fumble in his fingers, and once he had been stricken to impotence when they hid his supply. He came and looked under his gray eyebrows at the rising tiers of young fresh faces, and spoke with his accustomed studied commonness of phrasing. "Circumstances have arisen--circumstances beyond my control," he said and paused, "which will debar me from completing the course I had designed. It would seem, gentlemen, if I may speak clearly and briefly, that--Man has lived in vain."

The students glanced at one another. Had they heard right? Mad? Raised eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained intent on his calm gray-fringed visage. "It will be interesting," he was saying, "to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it clear to you, of the calculations that lead me to this conclusion. Let us assume--"

He turned to the blackboard, drawing a diagram in his usual way. "What was that about 'lived in vain?'" whispered one student to another. "Listen," said the other, nodding toward the lecturer.

And presently they began to understand.

That night the star rose later, for its proper eastward motion had carried it across Leo toward Virgo, and its brightness was so great that the sky became a luminous blue as it rose, and every star was hidden in its turn, save only Jupiter near the zenith, Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius and the pointers of the Bear. It was very white and beautiful. In many parts of the world that night a pallid halo encircled it. It was perceptibly larger; in the clear refractive sky of the tropics it seemed nearly a quarter the size of the moon. Frost was still on the ground in England, but the world was as brightly lit as under midsummer moonlight. One could see to read by that cold clear light, and in the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.

And everywhere the world was awake that night, and throughout Christendom a somber murmur hung in the keen air over the countryside like the buzzing of bees in the heather, and this murmurous tumult grew to a clangor in the cities. It was the tolling of the bells in a million belfry towers and steeples, summoning the people to sleep no more, to sin no more, but to gather in their churches and pray. And overhead, growing larger and brighter as the earth rolled on its way and the night passed, rose the dazzling star.

The streets and houses were alight in all the cities, the shipyards glared, and whatever roads led to high country were lit and crowded all night long. And in all the seas about civilized lands, ships with throbbing engines, and ships with bellying sails, crowded with men and living creatures, stood out to ocean and the north. For already the warning of the master mathematician had been telegraphed all over the world, and translated into a hundred tongues. The new planet and Neptune, locked in fiery embrace, were whirling headlong, ever faster and faster toward the sun. Already every second this blazing mass flew a hundred miles, and every second its terrific velocity increased. As it flew now, indeed, it would pass a hundred million miles wide of Earth and scarcely affect it.

But near its destined path, as yet only slightly perturbed, spun the mighty planet Jupiter and his moons sweeping splendid around the sun. Every moment now the attraction between the fiery star and the greatest of the planets grew stronger. And the result of that attraction? Inevitably Jupiter would be deflected from its orbit into an elliptical path, and the burning star, swung by his attraction wide of its sunward rush, would "describe a curved path" and perhaps collide with, and certainly pass very close to, our Earth. "Earthquakes, volcanic outbreaks, cyclones, sea waves, floods, and a steady rise in temperature to I know not what limit"--so prophesied the master mathematician.

And overhead, to carry out his words, lonely, cold and livid, blazed the star of the coming doom.

To many who stared at it that night until their eyes ached, its approach seemed visible. And that night, too, the weather changed, and the frost gripping all Central Europe, France, and England softened toward a thaw.

Yet despite those people praying through the night and going aboard ships and fleeing toward the mountains, use and wont still ruled most of the world, and save for the talk of idle moments and the splendor of the night, nine human beings out of ten remained busy with their common occupations. In all the cities the shops, save one here and there, opened and closed at their proper hours, doctors and undertakers plied their trades, workers gathered in factories, soldiers drilled, scholars studied, lovers sought one another, thieves lurked and fled, politicians schemed. Newspaper presses roared through the night, and many a priest of this church and that would not open his holy building to further what he considered a foolish panic. The newspapers insisted on the lesson of the year 1000--for then, too, people had anticipated the end. The star was no star--mere gas--a comet; and were it a star it could not possibly strike Earth. There was no precedent for such a thing. Common sense was sturdy everywhere, scornful, jesting, a little inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful. That night, at 7:15 Greenwich time, the star would be its nearest to Jupiter. Then the world would see the turn of events. The master mathematician's grim warnings were treated by many as so much mere elaborate self-advertisement. Common sense at last, a little heated by argument, signified its unalterable convictions by going to bed. So, too, barbarism and savagery, already tired of the novelty, went about their nightly business, and save for a howling dog here and there, the beast world left the star unheeded.

And yet, when at last watchers in the European States saw the star rise, an hour later it is true, but no larger than the night before, there were still plenty awake to laugh at the master mathematician--as if the danger had passed.

But hereafter the laughter ceased. The star grew--grew with terrible steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, till it turned night into day. Had it come straight to the earth instead of in a curved path, had it lost no velocity to Jupiter, it would have lept the intervening gulf in a day, but as it was it took five days altogether to come by our planet. The next night it had become a third the size of the moon before it set to English eyes, and the thaw was complete. It rose over America near the size of the moon, but blinding white to look at, and hot; and a breath of hot wind blew now with its rising and gathering strength, and in Virginia, Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence valley, it shone intermittently through a driving reek of thunderclouds, flickering lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of Earth, snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the rivers coming out of high country flowed thick and turbid, and soon--in their upper reaches--with swirling trees and the bodies of beasts and men. They rose steadily, steadily in the ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at last, behind the fleeing population of their valleys.

And along the coast of Argentina and up the South Atlantic the tides surged higher than ever in the memory of man, and the storms drove the waters scores of miles inland, drowning whole cities. And so great grew the heat during the night that sunrise was like the coming of a shadow. The earthquakes began and grew until all down America from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, hillsides slid, fissures were opened, and houses and walls crumbled to destruction. The whole side of Cotopaxi slipped out in one vast convulsion, and a tumult of lava poured out so high and broad and swift and liquid that in one day it reached the sea.

So the star, with the wan moon in its wake, marched across the Pacific, trailed the thunderstorms like the hem of a robe, and the growing tidal wave that toiled behind it, frothing and eager, poured over island and island and swept them clear of men. Until that wave came at last--in a blinding light and with the breath of a furnace, swift and terrible it came, a wall of water, 50 feet high, roaring hungrily--upon the long coasts of Asia, and swept inland across the plains of China. For a space the star, hotter, larger, and brighter now than the sun, showed with pitiless brilliance the wide and populous country: towns and villages with their pagodas and trees, roads, wide cultivated fields, millions of sleepless people staring in helpless terror at the incandescent sky; and then, low and growing, came the murmur of the flood. And thus it was with millions of men that night--a flight nowhither, with limbs heavy with heat and breath fierce and scant, and the flood like a wall swift and white behind. And then death.

China was lit glowing white, but over Japan and Java and all the islands of Eastern Asia the great star was a ball of dull red fire because of the steam and smoke and ashes the volcanoes spouted forth to salute its coming. Above was the lava, hot gases, and ash, and below the seething floods, and the whole earth swayed and rumbled with earthquake shocks. Soon the immemorial snows of Tibet and the Himalayas were melting and pouring down by ten million deepening converging channels upon the plains of Burma and Hindostan. The tangled summits of the Indian jungles were aflame in a thousand places, and below the hurrying waters around the stems, dark objects still struggled feebly and reflected the blood-red tongues of fire. And in a rudderless confusion a multitude of men and women fled down the broad river-ways to that one last hope of men--the open sea.

Larger, hotter, and brighter grew the star with terrible swiftness now. The tropical ocean had lost its phosphorescence, and the whirling steam rose in ghostly wreaths from the black waves that plunged incessantly, speckled with storm-tossed ships.

And then came a wonder. It seemed to those in Europe watching for the rising of the star that the world must have ceased its rotation. In a thousand open spaces of down and upland the people who had fled thither from the floods and falling houses and sliding slopes of hill watched for that rising in vain. Hour followed hour through terrible suspense, and the star rose not. Once again men set their eyes on the old constellations they had counted lost to them forever. In England it was hot and clear overhead, though the ground quivered perpetually, but in the tropics, Sirius and Capella and Aldebaran showed through a veil of steam. And when at last the great star rose near ten hours late, the sun rose close upon it, and in the center of its white heart was a disk of black.

Over Asia it was as if the star had begun to fall behind the movement of the sky, and then suddenly, as it hung over India, its light had been veiled. Before, all the plain of India from the mouth of the Indus to the mouths of the Ganges had been a shallow waste of shining water, out of which rose temples and palaces, mounds and hills, black with people. Every minaret had been a clustering mass of people, who fell one by one into the turbid waters, as heat and terror overcame them. The whole land seemed a-wailing when suddenly there swept a shadow across that furnace of despair, and a breath of cold wind, and a gathering of clouds, out of the cooling air. Men looking up, near blinded, at the star, saw a black disk creeping across the light. It was the moon, coming between the star and Earth. And even as men cried to God at this respite, out of the East with a strange inexplicable swiftness sprang the sun. And then star, sun and moon rushed together across the heavens.

So it was that presently, to the European watchers, star and sun rose close upon each other, drove headlong for a space and then slower, and at last came to rest, merged into one glare of flame at the zenith of the sky. The moon no longer eclipsed the star but was lost to sight in the brilliance of the sky. And though those who were still alive regarded it for the most part with that dull stupidity that hunger, fatigue, heat, and despair engender, there were still men who could perceive the meaning of these signs. Star and Earth had been at their nearest, had swung about one another, and the star had passed. Already it receded, swifter and swifter, in the last stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun.

And then the clouds gathered, blotting out the vision of the sky, the thunder and lightning wove a garment around the world; all over the earth was such a downpour of rain as men had never before seen, and where the volcanoes flared red against the cloud canopy there descended torrents of mud. Everywhere the waters poured off the land, leaving mud-silted ruins, and the earth littered like a storm-worn beach with all that had floated, and the dead bodies of men and brutes, its children. For days the water streamed off the land, sweeping away soil and trees and houses in the way, and piling huge dikes and scooping out titanic gullies over the countryside. Those were the days of darkness that followed the star and its heat. All through them, and for many weeks and months, the earthquakes continued.

But the star had passed, and men, hunger-driven and gathering courage only slowly, might creep back to their ruined cities, buried granaries, and sodden fields. Such few ships as had escaped the storms of that time came stunned and shattered and sounding their way cautiously through the new marks and shoals of once familiar ports. And as the storms subsided, men perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore, and the sun larger, and the moon, shrunk to one third its former size, took now fourscore days between its new and new.

Of the brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin's Bay, so that sailors coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of mankind now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards the poles. It concerns itself only with the coming and passing of the Star.

The Martian astronomers--for there are astronomers on Mars, although they are very different beings from men--were naturally profoundly interested by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course. "Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung through our solar system into the sun," one wrote, "it is astonishing how little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All the familiar continental markings and masses of the seas remain intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the white discoloration (supposed to be frozen water) around either pole." Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.

to the Free Sci-Fi Classics table of contents

to The World of the Wondersmith

Free Sci-Fi Classics
Copyright © 1998-2018 Blake Linton Wilfong
All rights reserved.