Thomas Hockey University of Northern Iowa
Studies of astronomy’s role in novels have been limited to those deemed “serious literature.” But what about more common popular works of fiction?
To explore this question, I looked particularly for books involving total eclipses of the Sun. The famous August 2017 total solar eclipse was the first over American soil since 1991, and the August 1999 total solar eclipse was effectively the first such observable from England in 275 years. Both events were publicized to a greater degree than ever before. I found their influence in the following recent books, and I followed up with authors to learn more about their use of eclipses in their stories.
Many stories that include eclipses do not make those eclipses important to the overall plot. These stories include:
- Illegal Alien, a science-fiction story by Robert J. Sawyer. Aliens named the Tosok visit the Earth, and their human guide takes them to see the 1999 total solar eclipse. The Tosok are impressed, as their home planet has no satellite!
- Into the Eclipse, a psychological thriller by Spence Kennedy. It commences with the Australian total solar eclipse of December 2002. Spence Kennedy is the pen name of Jim Clayton. In answer to my questions, the author replied, "I didn't see the Australian eclipse. I was in London, August 1999, for the eclipse then — not total, but pretty much!"
- Ecliptical Dreamer, by Xandy Vee. This whimsical story features the historical partial eclipses of September and February 2017 (though this one was a future eclipse, at the time of publication!). Both are seen from the story’s setting in Weltrus, South Africa.
- A Celestial Affair, by Daphne Neville. This ghost story is set in an imaginary seaside village in Cornwall (England). Cornwall was the only county in Great Britain to experience totality during the total solar eclipse of 1999.
- The Eclipse, a western by C. J. Petit, complete with shootouts and an observatory. It begins with a young man named Clay attending the University of Iowa (and indeed, Professor Gustavus Hinrichs in Iowa City did direct the university’s telescope during the August 1869 total solar eclipse) and follows him to 1878, at which point he is an astronomer preparing for July’s total solar eclipse. The plot references Rawlins, Wyoming — which was, indeed, temporarily home to well-known astronomers, as well as American inventor Thomas Edison (of light-bulb fame), who tested a new device to measure the solar corona’s heat.
- The Eclipse Dancer, by Laura Koerber. This invented memoir is bracketed by two historical total eclipses of the Sun; context suggests that these are the July 1963 and 2017 eclipses. The author told me, “The story is inspired by the real eclipse we had a few years ago.”
- After the Eclipse, by Fran Dorricott. This mystery begins with the total solar eclipse of 1999, as witnessed in the fictitious English town of Bishop’s Green, Derbyshire. In answer to my questions, the author wrote, "Moving the [March] 2015 path of totality was artistic license! Derbyshire is my home, and I wanted to write a crime novel in my home county..."
On the other hand, some stories that include eclipses do make those eclipses important to the overall plot. These stories include:
- Shooting the Sun, a historical novel by Max Byrd. It concerns an imaginary August 1840 solar-eclipse expedition to the Chihuahuan Desert for the August 1840 solar eclipse. The expedition is imaginary, the eclipse was not. Byrd shifts the time and location of the solar eclipse, seemingly to place his protagonists under duress, in the hottest and most severe of conditions. He explained to me that the total-eclipse path “tweak” in his plotline is, “Pure artistic license!”
- Seventh Daughter, an action adventure by Ronnie Seagren. The story involves a child born in Denver, Colorado during the historic total solar eclipse in June 1918. Through mysterious circumstances, she also must be on the path of totality for the (again, historical) total solar eclipse of June 1937, which terminated in Peru. A story of exploits ensues.
- Eclipse Totality, a fantasy novel by April Kristie, which references multiple historical and future total solar eclipses. It opens with the historical total solar eclipse of January 1925 and then flashes forward to 2017’s “Great American Eclipse”. A non sequitur visit with aliens then ensues, in which the aliens require that the protagonist be present for the total solar eclipse in July 2019; the protagonist follows the Moon’s shadow in a private jet out of Buenos Aires, thereby extending the duration of totality. The total solar eclipse to take place in December 2020 in Chile is touched upon in passing, which we now know was largely clouded out on the ground. The next total solar eclipse pivotal to the storyline takes place in April 2024, and the total solar eclipse in August 2026 is visited in Madrid, Spain. The more-distant-in-time July 2028 total solar eclipse, to be visible in Australia, is also alluded to. Eclipse Totality sets a record for the number of historical total eclipses of the Sun included in any one of these ten collected works.
All of the books that I list above were published in 2003 or later. This suggests that major writing occurred after the 1999 total solar eclipse. There is obviously a cluster of “eclipse novels” published around the year 2017, with more perhaps to come!
Byrd, Max (2003), Shooting the Sun, New York: Bantam Books.
Dorricott, Fran (2019), After the Eclipse, London: Titan Books.
Kennedy, Spence (2012), Into the Eclipse, Boston: Amazon Digital Services.
Koerber, Laura (2018), The Eclipse Dancer, Amissville: Who Chains You Publishing.
Kristie, April (2019), Eclipse Totality, Boston: Amazon Digital Services.
Neville, Daphne (2016), A Celestial Affair, Oregon: PublishNation.
Petit, C. J. (2017), The Eclipse, Boston, Amazon Digital Services.
Sawyer, Robert (2011), Illegal Alien, New York: Ace Books.
Seagren, Ronnie (2008), Seventh Daughter, Denver: Flying Pen Press.
Vee, Xandy (2016), Ecliptical Dreamer, Boston: Amazon Digital Services.