Friday, March 6, 2015

The Year When Stardust Fell

The Year When Stardust FellThe Year When Stardust Fell by Raymond F. Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how I missed this book when I was growing up - it was first published in 1955, so it was certainly available to me. And I'm sure I would have loved it, as it is somewhat similar to Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, which was one of my favorite books. Both tell of an apocalyptic event, and the aftermath thereof. However, while Alas, Babylon dealt with nuclear war, the event in this book is caused by "space dust" in a comet's tail. The effect of the dust is to fuse all metals in any type of moving mechanism, with devastating societal consequences.

The action takes place in a small college town called Mayfield. The main character is Ken Maddox, a teenage boy who is very into science. (His father is a chemistry professor at the college.) Ken is very excited about a comet that is passing so close to earth that the earth will be engulfed in the comet's tail. When car engines start failing, Ken and his science club friends start investigating the possibility that the comet is responsible. Soon, they hear reports of engines failing all over the world - planes, trains, cars, turbines in hydroelectric dams, etc. This means no electricity, no water, no food - except that which is on hand. The reaction of people to the loss of all modern trappings is what one would expect: fear, hoarding, looting, rioting, killing. This was one of the strong suits of of the book - I felt it didn't sugar-coat the way people would respond, as I kind of expected from a book of this era. But the author does not shy away from depicting the hoards of people stampeding through cities.

Ken, his father, and the other scientists at the college begin research to try to find a way to neutralize the negative affects of the comet dust. They contact other communities via ham radio, to share research. It is through the radio they hear of the riots and killing, which destroy the labs at Berkeley.

Mayfield, itself, is not immune to the darker side of humanity - there is hoarding, as well as a group who become superstitious and begin to blame the scientists for the problem. This group is led by an old woman who has "prophesied" about the devastation of the comet, in somewhat religious tones. This is another area where the book surprised me. I could certainly see a large segment of the current US population easily going down this path, were something similar to happen today. To have this depicted in a book from the 50's is certainly prescient of the author. The struggles in the community, between these two factions, are very realistically portrayed.

Those are the good points of the book. Now to the downsides. As is expected in a book released in 1955, it is very sexist. Only boys are in the science club - this is not a rule, but it is just assumed that girls would not be interested. All of the adult scientists are men. The daughter of one of the scientists, who is sort of Ken's girlfriend, is expected to handle the radio (after instruction by Ken, of course) and do the typing up of the recorded transmissions. When a large army of nomads attacks Mayfield, only the men are given weapons and expected to defend their community. The women are expected to be nurses. I found this blatant sexism to be a major detractor from my enjoyment of the book.

And, of course, the science behind the comet dust is pretty iffy, though the author does a pretty decent job of scientific hand-waving and technospeak - enough that I could almost accept it. Willing suspension of disbelief, and all that.

So, major kudos for handling the realistic breakdown of society that would arise from such an event. But minus points for the rampant sexism. I would still recommend this to young science fiction readers, as long as an adult could point out the drawbacks of the sexism. But because of the good points, I think it's worth reading.

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