The Man Who Rocked the Earth, by Arthur Train and Robert Williams Wood

A few posts ago, I noted that physicist R.W. Wood was one of the earliest scientists to contemplate issues of invisibility.  While researching his work, I noted that he was also a science fiction author, having penned two books with Arthur Train, The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon Maker (1916).

I was immediately intrigued; scientists are often stereotyped as unimaginative and humorless types, and are certainly not considered to be artistic enough to write a novel!  This of course is an unfair generalization; there are plenty of science-types who can write a great science fiction story.

So what about Wood — did he have the skills to write science fiction?  I would say yes!  I really enjoyed MWRE; it captured my interest from the first moment and kept it throughout.  The writing is crisp and to the point: it probably didn’t hurt that Wood’s coauthor Arthur Train was already established as a writer of legal thrillers.

The novel tells the story of world-changing events influenced by a mysterious and seemingly all-powerful scientist known as “Pax”.  Pax gives humanity an ultimatum: either change its ways and end all wars, or face worldwide destruction.

The novel, written in 1915, is clearly a commentary on and criticism of World War I, which had been ignited a year earlier with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.    Wood and Train begin their tale in 1916, at which point worldwide conflict has brought human progress to a standstill:

By July 1, 1916 the war had involved every civilized nation upon the globe except the United Stated of North and of South America, which had up to that time succeeded in maintaining their neutrality.  Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland, Austria Hungary, Lombardy, and Serbia, had been devastated.  Five million adult male human beings had been exterminated by the machines of war, by disease, and by famine.  Ten million had been crippled or invalided.  Fifteen million women and children had been rendered widows or orphans.  Industry there was none.  No crops were harvested or sown.  The ocean was devoid of sails.  Throughout European Christendom women had taken the place of men as field hands, laborers, mechanics, merchants, and manufacturers.  The amalgamated debt of the involved nations, amounting to more than $100,000,000,000, had bankrupted the world.  Yet the starving armies continued to slaughter one another.

Siberia was a vast charnel-house of Tartars, Chinese, and Russians.  Northern Africa was a holocaust.  Within sixty miles of Paris lay an army of two million Germans, while three million Russians had invested Berlin.  In Belgium an English army of eight hundred and fifty thousand men faced an equal force of Prussians and Austrians, neither daring to take the offensive.

The inventive genius of mankind, stimulated by the exigencies of war, had produced a multitude of death-dealing mechanisms, most of which had in turn been rendered ineffective by some counter-invention of another nation.  Three of these products of the human brain, however, remained unneutralized and in large part accounted for the impasse at which the hostile armies found themselves.

The third, and perhaps the most vital, invention was Dufay’s nitrogen-iodide pellets, which when sown by pneumatic guns upon the slopes of a battlefield, the ground outside entrenchments, or round the glacis of a fortification made approach by an attacking army impossible and the position impregnable.  These pellets, only the size of No. 4 bird shot and harmless out of contact with air, became highly explosive two minutes after they had been scattered broadcast upon the soil, and any friction would discharge them with sufficient force to fracture or dislocate the bones of the human foot or to put out of service the leg of a horse.  The victim attempting to drag himself away inevitably sustained further and more serious injuries, and no aid could be given to the injured, as it was impossible to reach them.

Grabs your attention, doesn’t it?  The description of the pellets, to me, is an indirect reference to the new horrors introduced into combat in WWI, such as chemical warfare.

With chaos throughout the world, one radio broadcast would hardly seem of any importance.  But in the U.S. Naval Observatory, operator Bill Hood picks up an ultra-long wavelength signal, evidently intended for his station:

“To all mankind” — he addressed himself modestly — “To all mankind — to all mankind — I am the dictator — of human destiny — Through the earth’s rotation — I control — day and night — summer and winter — I command the — cessation of hostilities and — the abolition of war upon the globe — I appoint the — United States — as my agent for this purpose — As evidence of my power I shall increase the length of the day — from midnight to midnight — of Thursday, July, 22nd, by the period of five minutes.  — PAX.”

Bill Hood dismisses the message as that of a crank, but the following Thursday (afternoon in New York City), people around the globe experience a “slight dragging sensation.”   The tremor is enough to topple Cleopatra’s Needle in New York, but this is the least effect experienced worldwide.  Tsunamis crash ashore, the direction of magnetic north is permanently changed, and strange  lights, determined to be related to a massive release of helium,  are observed in the northern sky.  Perhaps most distressing, astronomers note that the earth’s rotation has been permanently set back by precisely five minutes.

Soon the leaders of the world are gathering to decide how to respond to the demands and frightening power of the mysterious Pax.  There are those who wish to capitulate, those who wish to resist, and those who simply don’t believe.  But when Pax is asked to provide further proof of his power, he appears in a flying ring over Africa and performs an act of terraforming so drastic that it leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind.

While world leaders make their plans, a researcher into atomic energy named Benjamin Hooker learns of Pax’s power and sets off on a solo quest to find the man — and congratulate him on his discovery!  But what will he find at the end of his journey?

The novel is a rather fascinating look at what an eminent physicist of the early 1900s considered to be the possible future of science.  The machines that Pax has developed utilize a force which was powerful and mysterious at the time: radioactivity!

“Do you regard it as possible by any human agency?” inquired Thornton.

“Why not?” repeated Hooker.  “All you need is the energy.  And it’s lying round if you could only get at it.  That’s just what I’m working at now.  Radium, uranium, thorium, actinium — all the radioactive elements — are, as everybody knows, continually disintegrating, discharging the enormous energy that is imprisoned in their molecules.  It may take generations, epochs, centuries, for them to get rid of it and transform themselves into other substances, but they will inevitably do so eventually.  They’re doing with more or less of a rush what all the elements are doing at their leisure.  A single ounce of uranium contains about the same energy that could be produced by the combustion of ten tons of coal — but it won’t let the energy go.  Instead it holds on to it, and the energy leaks slowly, almost imperceptibly, away, like water from a big reservoir tapped only by a tiny pipe.  ‘Atomic energy’ Rutherford calls it.  Every element, every substance, has its ready to be touched off and put to use.  The chap who can find out how to release that energy all at once will revolutionize the civilized world.  It will be like the discovery that water could be turned into steam and made to work for us — multiplied a million times.  If, instead of that energy just oozing away and the uranium disintegrating infinitesimally each year, it could be exploded at a given moment you could drive an ocean liner with a handful of it.  You could make the old globe stagger round and turn upside down!  Mankind could just lay off and take a holiday.  But how?”

This is a strikingly prescient view of the future of nuclear power, written at a time when very little was understood about the structure of the atom, much less the nucleus!  The mention of Rutherford makes me wonder if Wood had read Rutherford’s (mostly joking) declaration that, “could a proper detonator be discovered, an explosive wave of atomic disintegration might be started through all matter which would transmute the whole mass of the globe, and leave but a wrack of helium behind.”   By the time of MWRE, scientists realized the incredible power of the atom, but were a long way away from being able to wield it.  Wood did overexaggerate mankind’s ability to control atomic power, however: though we can certainly ruin life on earth with nuclear weapons, adjusting the planet’s rotation is beyond our meager abilities!

Wood and Train also showed amazing insight into human nature, bordering on precognition.  When the leaders of the world gather in Washington to discuss Pax’s demands, the German ambassador stubbornly refuses to believe that such changes could be man-made, even after Pax demonstrates his power yet again:

“Snow!” he cried.  “A snowstorm — in August!”

The President arose and closed the window.  Almost immediately the electric lights burned up again.

“Now are you satisfied?” cried Liban to the German.

“Satisfied?” growled Von Koenitz.  “I have seen plenty of snowstorms in August.  They have them daily in the Alps.  You ask me if I am satisfied.  Of what?  That earthquakes, the aurora borealis, electrical disturbances, snowstorms exist — yes.  That a mysterious bugaboo is responsible for these things — no!”

“What, then, do you require?” gasped Liban.

“More than a snowstorm!” retorted the German.  “When I was a boy at the gymnasium we had a thunderstorm with fishes in it.  They were everywhere one stepped, all over the ground.  But we did not conclude that Jonah was giving us a demonstration of his power over the whale.”

Hmm… stubborn refusal to acknowledge a growing body of evidence, strawman arguments against opposing views, condescending mockery — Wood and Train could be talking about climate change denialists!  Even more apt, we later find in the novel that the German ambassador’s skepticism is not quite sincere.

The novel practically seethes with righteous rage against the injustice and senselessness of war — those who consider scientists to be amoral, emotionless robots should be encouraged to read it.

The character of Pax can even be interpreted as a sort of proto-superhero, a man with superhuman powers, mysterious identity, who fights for the good of mankind.  It is to be noted that this is well before the real superhero era began with the publication of Superman in the early 1930s.  To see the similarities, consider a scene in which a German general, deciding to ignore the armistice, plans to unleash hell on Paris with a superweapon of his own:

The projectile of this diabolical invention was ninety-five centimeters in diameter, and was itself a rifled mortar, which in full flight, twenty miles from the gun and at the top of its trajectory, exploded in mid-air, hurtling forward its contained projectile with an additional velocity of three thousand feet per second… This crowning example of the human mind’s destructive ingenuity had cost the German Government five million marks and had required three years for its construction, and by no means the least of its devilish capacities was that of automatically reloading and firing itself at the interval of every ten seconds, its muzzle rising, falling, or veering slightly from side to side with each discharge, thus causing the shells to fall at wide distances… It had been tested by a preliminary shot the day before, which had been directed to a point several miles outside the walls of Paris, the effect of which had been observed and reported by high-flying German aeroplanes equipped with wireless.  Everything was ready for the holocaust.

The tension in the scene is palpable.  Will the Germans destroy Paris?  Will Pax arrive to stop them in time?

It seems rather clear to me that Pax reflects the anger that Wood and Train themselves felt towards humanity and its foolish impulse to destroy itself.  Pax is out of patience with mankind, and is in essence giving them one last chance to stop killing themselves — or he will do it for them.

The only thing disappointing about the novel is its resolution.  The climax of the tale feels somewhat artificial and disconnected from the rest of the novel; I was reminded of the ending of The Metal Monster (1920), a story which has many parallels to MWRE.  Curiously, both stories involve humanity facing an awesome, unsympathetic force of unspeakable power that threatens its very existence.  I would be curious to know if Merritt had read Train and Wood’s book.

In the end, I found MWRE quite enjoyable.  It is rather unsubtle in its anti-war moralizing, but if you can get past that, it is a fascinating and rather unique early science fiction tale by one of the great scientists of the time.

My next read will probably be The Moon Maker, Train and Wood’s sequel to MWRE!

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9 Responses to The Man Who Rocked the Earth, by Arthur Train and Robert Williams Wood

  1. The Ridger says:

    Whoo-hoo! Another one that’s on Kindled (for 99 cents!).

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    This of course is an unfair generalization; there are plenty of science-types who can write a great science fiction story.

    Indeed, indeed. [checks link] Hey, thanks!

    Of course, you know that now I’ll never trust your literary judgement. (-:

    • Of course, you know that now I’ll never trust your literary judgement.

      Well, with that attitude, I assume you gave up on my literary assessments when I bought the book in the first place! 🙂

  3. IronMonkey says:

    It made me recall the plot of the movie Watchmen (the latter of which I was highly disappointed). Thanks for the book review, now I know that Wood’s was also a visionary writer.

    • Did you read the original graphic novel of Watchmen? I’m not sure how the movie compares, but the novel is quite good, albeit highly cynical and depressing.

    • IronMonkey says:

      No I did not read the novel, but I have read somewhere that it is a classic in the genre so I’m guessing it is good. It is really just the movie that I did not like, so I will take a look at the original series.

      • Blake Stacey says:

        Watchmen is, I’ve been told, a graphic novel for people who grew up on superhero comic books. If you’re not familiar with the genre and its conventions, you won’t pick up on everything that’s happening. Whether that’s absolutely certain I won’t venture to say, but it might explain why I thought it was good but not All That It’s Claimed To Be (TM).

  4. Pingback: Weird science facts, March 28 – April 10 | Skulls in the Stars

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