Friday, October 17, 2014

Siding Spring: The plague comet?

For all of human history, our race has associated comets with plague and other disasters.

Bizarre human behavior.  Mass violence.  A plague.  And now a comet.  Okay, this is getting weird.  Damned weird.  And believe it or not, it fits a pattern.

A couple of years ago, I began to notice a disturbing trend.  After many years in the TV news business, like all other news professionals I had become used to a daily menu of violence, mayhem and unrest of various forms.  But a new type of story began to emerge that was disturbing even by those standards.  For one, incidents of random mass gun violence, which had started to be a problem late in the 20th century, were increasing in their number and pace.  But other incidents began to pop up that were, although typically less violent, even more bizarre and hard to explain.  You’d hear about a traveler on a passenger jet suddenly deciding to urinate on a fellow passenger—not just one incident, but one after another just like it.  Or something similar would happen on a public bus, or on a passenger train, and so on.  And then there were increasingly bizarre random acts of violence, such as the Florida man who suddenly decided one day to eat a stranger’s face off.  And the naked man who attacked travelers at a BART station in San Francisco.  There was the private pilot who decided to ram his plane into an IRS office.  And the guy who deliberately decapitated himself with a chainsaw.  And other incidents too brutal and grotesque to describe here. 

After many jokes about this sort of thing with reporters in the newsroom, I starting keeping an informal list.  And I began to wonder whether there might be a common denominator for all these incidents.  Could it be that the human race itself was starting to go collectively insane?

That thought inspired me to write a novel, A Journal of the Crazy Year, which I published for the Kindle one year ago (a print edition is on the way now).  For sci-fi fun and to spice up the action, I threw in a plague.  And a once-in-a-million-years deep-space comet. 

On a subsection of this blog, The Bashful Bloviator, I write about strange happenings and weird coincidences that I and others have experienced over the years.  With A Journal of the Crazy Year, I’m not quite ready to say “I told you so.”  But I'm definitely adding the novel to my “strange coincidences” list.  Some of the parallels between what I wrote about and what proceeded to actually happen in real life over the course of this year are striking.  Here are some of them.

1.  Mass violence:  Wondering what the next development in mass violence might be, I guessed that it might have something to do with incidents involving multiple attackers, rather than just individuals.  So, I wrote a scene featuring a random mob of people descending on a public square for a mass attack.  This year, something very much like that did happen.  A crowd of assailants spontaneously descended on a grocery store parking lot in Memphis and savagely assaulted shoppers just for the fun of it.  The novel also contains other scenes of fictional mass violence.  In 2014, real-life mass shootings continued their steady march.  A new Harvard study shows my impression that such incidents are becoming the norm is not misguided; the mass-shooting rate has tripled in the past three years.  Meanwhile, other bizarre violent acts continue to pop up with great regularity, such as the man who sexually assaulted a woman aboard a passenger jet last week.

2.  Mysterious jet crashes:  I wrote about passenger jets crashing under circumstances that lent themselves to no rational explanation.  This was well before the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, an event for which we have no rational explanation.

3.  Headline-grabbing disease outbreak:  I wrote about a known plague coming back in more virulent form with a massive mortality rate.  The disease in my novel was inspired by an actual and very mysterious pandemic that erupted a century ago, causing insanity and hyperviolence in some of its victims.  Drawing upon my experience as a journalist, I wrote scenes describing in detail some of the media coverage such an event would entail.  Now we have Ebola, a disease with a massively high mortality rate, now threatening to break out into the world population.  Last night I watched wall-to-wall coverage on CNN, which could not tear itself away from live pictures of a single plane carrying a single disease victim.  The outbreak has been dominating media coverage for two weeks now.  It’s been a topic of frequent and intense coverage and conversation on my Tucson PowerTalk 1210 radio program.

4.  The comet:  I wrote about a mysterious comet visiting the solar system, where it proceed to make a hair-raisingly close pass to the Earth.  And now we have comet Siding Spring, which is about to make a hair-raisingly close pass to planet Mars.  My fictional comet was a visitor from deep space at the outer edges of the solar system.  The real life comet is a visitor from deep space at the outer edges of the solar system.  Mine was a long-period comet, with an orbit of more than a million years.  Siding Spring is a long-period comet, with an orbit of more than a million years.  The fictional comet approached from beneath the plane of the ecliptic.  The real-life comet is doing the same.

I’m not willing to call A Journal of the Crazy Year prophetic just yet.  But the parallels between art and life here are eerie, to say the least.  And mine is by no means the first novel to be able to make such a claim.  U.S. writer Morgan Robertson once wrote a book about the world’s largest ocean liner, a vessel named the Titan, which was said to be unsinkable.  In his novel, the Titan set sail on its maiden voyage in the month of April.  It struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.  The vessel did not carry enough lifeboats for all the passengers, resulting in a massive loss of life.  14 years later, the real-life Titanic, the world’s largest ocean liner, said to be unsinkable, set sail on its maiden voyage in the month of April.  It struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic.  The vessel did not carry enough lifeboats for all the passengers, resulting in a massive loss of life. 

Here’s another parallel between my novel and real life worth noting.  This is not the first time in human history that the appearance of a comet has coincided with the arrival of a plague.  Far from it.  In modern times, the human race has for the most part lost its fear of comets.  But for much of human history, people associated comets with really bad things.  In their seminal work on these wondrous visitors from the heavens, Comet, authors Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan note that humankind has long had a love-hate relationship with comets.  They note that the very first unambiguous mention of a comet in human history, originating from a 3,200 year old fragment of a Babylonian record found in what is now Iraq, associates comets with earthly upheavals.  That document may have been the first to connect comets with bad news, but it was by no means the last.  The association between comets and disasters—particularly biological ones—has been enduring.  The authors go on to say, "The worldwide association of comets with pestilence is striking, transcending cultural differences, and it is tempting to consider whether comets might in fact and not just fancy be the carriers of epidemics."

Nor is mine the first work of fiction to associate comets with plagues and other disasters.  In 1722, Daniel Defoe wrote a fictionalized account of the Great Plague of London.  He began A Journal of the Plague Year with these words:  “A blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after, another, a little before the fire.”

Could Comet Siding Spring be a case of life imitating art imitating life?

Let’s fervently hope not.  Things did not go well in Defoe’s novel.  Nor do they in mine.  Events get worse.  Much, much worse.


I had no idea when I posted this last year that my novel would turn out to be even more prophetic than the events described here might indicate.  By February of 2015, enough of what the novel describes had come to pass that I was invited to discuss it on Coast to Coast AM.  Then in March, two new headlines blew the doors off everything that had come before.  You can find that article here.

Find out more about the novel itself at this link, where you can get a free sample chapter, see reviews from professional critics and readers, and find purchase links.

Siding Spring image courtesy of NASA/Space Science Telescope Institute.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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