Solar eclipses have been a science fiction theme for thousands of years

Storytellers have long fixated on the awe-inspiring phenomenon that is a total solar eclipse. From ancient myths about dragons eating the sun to hundreds of more contemporary depictions — in Stephen King’s 1992 novel Dolores Claiborne, the 2006 film Apocalypto, or any number of sci-fi TV shows — eclipses have been so present in fiction that they can be traced through literally thousands of years’ worth of storytelling, across a wide range of mediums.

Mapped across history, these depictions can provide insight into everything from a writer’s cultural identity to how scientific advancement changed the way humans interpret natural phenomena. But how accurate are they? How are solar eclipses portrayed differently across different mediums? What kinds of narrative trends have they been part of?

As millions of Americans prepare to witness the first total solar eclipse in the US in 38 years, I turned to Lisa Yaszek, a professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech University and former president of the Science Fiction Research Association, to discuss the history, meanings, and accuracy of eclipses in fiction. Here’s what I learned.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Fictional representations of solar eclipses are often used to underline a specific plot point

Abbey White

What are the key scientific aspects of a solar eclipse that must be present for an accurate depiction?

Liza Yaszek

In the case of a solar eclipse on Earth, authors and directors want to make sure they get all the heavenly objects in question lined up, and that it’s clear the moon is between the sun and the Earth. They also want to make sure they’ve got a duration that makes sense. Solar eclipses usually last just a few minutes, while lunar eclipses can go on for hours.

Of course, if the story takes place on a different planet, or if for some reason the Earth, say, suddenly has a second artificial moon, the author or director will have more wiggle room. The key is to make sure the audience doesn’t suddenly look up and ask, “How could it possibly be this way?”

Abbey White

What kinds of storytelling points are eclipses usually associated with?

Lisa Yaszek

Well, with an eclipse, particularly a solar eclipse, the laws of nature seem to be suspended. Day becomes night, the temperature drops, animals start making noises. There’s a wonderful description by NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller about how with eclipses this biological sense of dread just takes over. It can be like you’re standing on another planet.

An eclipse feels like a moment where something is wrong or different, so if you have a story that’s trying to comment on how, say, a certain set of political or social relationships are wrong, or how it’s time for a change in your characters, an eclipse can be a symbol of that. In that case, it might not be so much a matter of getting it accurate and more a matter of representing our own experiences with eclipses. That means we don’t always see the full eclipse; they don’t always last the full two to three minutes. Sometimes you just get a few emotional seconds of it.

The first science fiction story to feature a solar eclipse got the science totally wrong

Abbey White

Would you say that with the creative freedom and logistical restrictions of storytelling through visual media, you get inaccurate depictions of eclipses as a result?

Lisa Yaszek

Actually, one of the greatest scientific fails of all time is in a print science fiction story. We do tend to assume that with written stories, because writers have more time and thus less pressure on them, that they’ll have done much more careful research and incorporate a much more scientifically sound depiction. But the first science fiction story that featured an eclipse totally blew it. The novel, King Solomon’s Mines, was written by H. Rider Haggard and in theory it was the first modern — or you could say respected — science fiction novel to feature a solar eclipse.

When the first edition came out, a lot of readers said that Haggard had completely misrepresented a solar eclipse as something that could last for hours, rather than just a few minutes. There were so many complaints about it that in future editions of the book, they had to change it to a lunar eclipse, because that was the only way the science could match the story. In a 1937 film based on the book, they changed it back to a solar eclipse, as that looks more dramatic on the screen than a lunar eclipse would.

Abbey White

What’s the most accurate depiction of a solar eclipse you’ve seen onscreen?

Lisa Yaszek

The 1961 movie Barabbas. It’s the story of Jesus Christ on the cross. They were shooting in Italy, and it just so happened there really was a solar eclipse on the day they were shooting the crucifixion scene.

There is a history of Christian mythology that claims there was a solar eclipse on the day Jesus was crucified, so the director was so excited. Everyone was like, “We’re never going to be able to catch this; it’s never going to work.” But they managed to capture the complete eclipse — everyone stayed in character, production ran with it. It’s considered one of the craziest moments in filmmaking history.

Abbey White

Is there one medium that seems to depict eclipses more accurately than others?

Lisa Yaszek

I think that print versus visual media offers different ways to approach eclipses. The thing that you always get in written stories, which is very hard to convey in something like a television show, is the scientific explanation. You can spend a lot of time writing out the reasoning for solar eclipses and spend a lot of time in people’s head. Print is very good at giving us a look into people’s psyches.

What you get in visual science fiction with film and television and video games is the ability to convey one particular aspect of the solar eclipse — that striking image of when day becomes night. There’s more focus on the visual impact. You can also effectively convey psychological states, as it dramatizes senses of wonder and dread. A director can do a close-up on one person who is reacting, then pan back onto a whole group of people. You can capture the emotion of it on a different scale.

In video games, eclipses are usually just a narrative mechanism to unleash beasts for killing. Having said that, gamers will tell you that this is an entirely appropriate use of eclipses in game narratives. They see the eclipse and feel an almost literal sense of dread as they prepare for the onslaught of new monsters. Video games can convey the strong emotions that often accompany a solar eclipse, but it’s definitely a more body-driven response.

The full interview first appeared at Vox on August 18, 2017

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