Not the Neil Gaiman Stardust

The Year When Stardust Fell — Raymond F. Jones


If you’re a North American of my age and you read science fiction in any quantity (especially via public libraries), then the odds are pretty good that you encountered at least a few of the Winston Science Fiction juveniles and you would be familiar with this logo.

I had toyed with the idea of reviewing the whole line, but I discovered, to my great annoyance, that there are almost forty books in the line and not one of them was written by a woman. Doing such a series would also do deplorable things to the gender ratio stats for my reviews1.

Instead, I decided to pick one example to give an idea of what the line was like. It was tough to decide between Raymond F. Jones’ 1958 The Year When Stardust Fell and Five Against Venus, Philip Latham’s 1952 epic tale of a thinly disguised Robinson family2 who aim for the Moon but end up on Venus, where they encounter man-bats. I really liked the man-bats, and the notion of a Swiss family Robinson in SPAAACE was … ah … deliciously predictable. I finally decided that the Jones novel was more influential.

The Year When Stardust begins innocently enough.

The ancients may have thought that comets were harbingers of doom but modern humans know better. It’s true that the approaching comet will brush Earth with its coma, its cometary atmosphere. But it certainly isn’t going to ram the Earth like some sort of Satanic gavel. Why, not only is a coma almost indistinguishable from vacuum, but Earth has passed through cometary comas before (Halley, in May 1910) and nothing happened. Still, plucky boy scientist Ken Maddox cannot help but feel apprehensive.

The disaster begins with a car breaking down. Nothing unusual about that, except that it is only the first of many mechanical failures. All of the failures have one thing in common: they involve metal parts somehow becoming fused with adjacent metal parts, more firmly than if they had been welded into place. And this is not limited to Ken’s bucolic little home town, Mayfield. It’s happening all across the Earth.

Not so bad for the undeveloped world (more about that in comments) but total disaster for the industrialized nations. Cars stop running, generators grind to a halt, ships are left drifting at sea. It does not take long for the vast and delicate system for moving goods around the world to stumble and fail. Soon after that, the lights go out across the planet.

And winter is coming3.

Scientists across the world race to find a solution. Not only is there no consensus on why metal surfaces are suddenly adhering to each other, but desperate mobs everywhere in the developed world are rioting as supplies of food and water dwindle. Rural Mayfield has an unusual combination of comparative isolation and a talented pool of scientists. As colleges and universities across the world burn, it falls to the scientists of Mayfield to save civilization.

If there’s a solution to be had.

If Mayfield itself can stand against barbarians within and without….


The one part of this I remembered clearly was the intermittent radio reports from a passenger ship stuck out in the ocean, unable to reach shore and unlikely to be rescued before cannibalism set in. That was pretty creepy to teenaged me and it’s still pretty creepy.

Someone at a recent movie night I hosted mentioned that showing older movies to young people can be a challenge because the older movies seem clichéd … when in fact those older movies invented the tropes that became clichés. It’s like the old joke about Shakespeare’s plays being composed almost entirely of famous quotations.

The Year When Stardust Fell may read like a carbon copy of works like Lucifer’s Hammer and S. M. Stirling’s Change novels. I can assure you that if there’s any influence at work here, it’s from Jones to the younger authors. Still, a younger reader encountering this for the first time is going to find all this very very familiar.

Which is not to say Jones does not tackle some issues rather differently than more modern authors would. For example, while there are would-be hoarders, the townsfolk think of and adopt a communal food store with a lot less trouble than I would expect from a modern American town4. Also, while it is clear that the limited supplies in town will have trouble keeping everyone in town alive through the winter, the people who object to simply allowing the outsiders to starve are not painted as obvious bleeding-heart idiots.

It is true that the rampaging mob of townsfolk are very much of the “let’s burn down the observatory to make sure (an undesirable event) never happens again” persuasion: your basic fools, knuckleheads, and future Tea Party electorate. Jones takes a somewhat more nuanced stance towards the army of nomads the town has to fight off. You may expect the nomad army to be composed of liberals, hippies, lesbians, feminists, various visible minorities with whom the author has an issue, and every person who has ever parked in Jerry Pournelle’s parking space. Jones takes a different approach. The main difference between the nomads and the townsfolk was luck. Note this exchange after Ken mortally wounds an attacking nomad:

“What were you?” he asked. “Before, I mean.”

The man coughed heavily and blood covered his mouth and thick growth of beard. The bullet must be in his lungs, Ken thought. He helped wipe away the blood and brushed the man’s mouth with a handful of snow.

“You’re crazy,” the nomad said again. “I guess we’re all crazy. You’re just a kid, aren’t you? You want to know what I was a million years ago, before all this?”

“Yes,” Ken said.

The man attempted a smile. “Gas station. Wasn’t that a crazy thing? No need of gas when all the cars quit. I owned one on the best little corner in Marysvale.”

“Why are you with them?” Ken nodded in the darkness toward the distant attackers.The man glared, twisting with the pain. Then his glance softened.

“You’d have done it, too. What else was there? I had a wife, two kids. No food within a hundred miles after we used what was in our own pantry and robbed what we could from the supermarket downtown.

“We all got together and went after some. We got bigger as we went along. We needed men who were good with rifles. We found some. We kept going. People who had food fought to keep it; we fought to take it. That’s the way it had to be.

Of course, as one might expect in a juvenile written more than half a century ago, other aspects of the book have not aged well.

Only those areas of the world, where people had never learned to depend on motor transportation or electric power, would be unaffected; those areas of China, India and Africa, where men still scratched the ground with a forked stick and asked only for a cup of rice or grain each day.

Mind you, those portions of the world where men “still scratched the ground with a forked stick” weather the comet’s passage more gracefully than does the developed world.

In the civilized areas, it was estimated that fully two-thirds of the population had perished. Only in the most primitive areas had the comet’s effect been lightly felt.

I expect the loss of two-thirds of the population of the imperial powers will speed the Winds of Change somewhat.

Modern readers interested in perusing earlier iterations of this sort of cozy catastrophe may be interested to learn that the copyright on the Winston books appears to have lapsed. This novel and others from the series can be found over at Project Gutenberg.

1: I can, of course, be bribed.

2: A very thin disguise, as I dimly recall that the family in the Latham novel was also named Robinson.

3: That’s kind of a cool tag line. Someone should use it for a novel or even for a series of novels.

4: An unfortunately flammable central food store.

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