I was fortunate enough to have a chance to see the solar eclipse last week from the zone of totality. Specifically, I saw it on a field of volcanic rock and sagebrush in central Idaho. My family, which was in Southwestern Montana, drove almost to the Saint Anthony Sand Dunes. When we found the perfect spot and stopped the car, the eclipse was underway, the sun was a third covered. We watched all the way through to the full emergeance and the complete view of the sun. Through eclipse filtered glasses of course.
I had not planned to write a blog about the eclipse. If I were still working at The New York Public Library, I probably would have participated in the staff recommendations. Most eclipse fiction is imperialist. Knowledge of an upcoming solar or lunar eclipse privileges colonialism and lets the visitor claim magic, kingly, or god-like power over the sun or moon. The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage sent out a listing of actual folklore narratives about eclipses. The column by James Deutsch can be found in the weekly newsletter, Talkstory, for the week after the eclipse (http://folklife.si.edu/talkstory/swallowing-the-sun-folk-stories-about-the-solar-eclipse)
One rare fictional exception to the imperialist trend, but only because it is so cynical, is in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (originally published in 1889). Hank Morgan, the Yankee who goes back in time, doesn’t claim god-like status. He uses his knowledge of an eclipse scheduled for June 528 to outmaneuver Merlin, who he considers as much of a charlatan as himself. He has a convenient memory:
“It came into my mind, in the nick of time, how Columbus or Cortez or one of those people played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my chance. I could play it myself, now; and it wouldn’t be any plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand years ahead of those parties.” Read the book in as close as possible to the original version – sometimes, the social satire and economics lesson sections are edited down, but they are definitely worth reading.
Morgan’s memory was accurate. Columbus used a lunar eclipse when stranded on Jamaica on his 4th voyage, on February 29 or March 1, 1504. Columbus’ source for the predicted date was Regiomontanus, an astrologer and mathematician, whose Almanack for 1475-1506 was a standard for mariners. The indigenous culture in Jamaica at that time was Arawak and, according to Space.com, Columbus did not claim god status – he just wanted food and supplies to help his crew survive until a rescue ship arrived.
Last week’s eclipse lived up to its press. It was majestic even in mid-day on land so flat and wide that there was no sense of scale. And the eclipse glasses that I brought at the American Museum of Natural History did their job very well. But, I have convergence issues with my eyes – distance vision crosses in one direction and close vision works in the opposite way. I have prisms in my glasses that solve the problem. But, the eclipse glasses countered (contradicted?) the prisms, so I had a unique experience – I saw two suns having two eclipses. It was magical, terrifying, and it made me deeply thankful to live in a time when 21st century ophthalmology met up with 17th century lens grinding.
I usually try to ignore science fiction when I have an experience with actual science. But, my eclipse experience reminded me of one of my favorite sci-fi stories. Nightfall was first published in September 1941 by Isaac Asimov in Astounding Science Fiction. It was expanded into a novel by Robert Silverberg, (published 1990), but my memory is of the original version, which is considered one of the great examples both of science fiction and short fiction. It is a favorite of archivists and scientists since it concerns scholars trying to protect their civilization from the fearful response of a people to what seems to be a predicted eclipse. Why my eclipse view reminded me of this Asimov story gets a Spoiler Alert.
I recommend both books and the Talkstory article.