The Astronomy of Fiction

I STOOD in the gathering dusk with my back to a lamp-post and gazed at Venus, a little above the western hills. A policeman passed and observed me casually. Before long he was back that way and I was still there. This time he eyed me with more interest, and, I thought, a shade professionally. To reassure him I said: —

‘ Good evening. Are you familiar with the points of interest around here?’

‘Well, pretty much,’ he answered amiably, plainly relieved to find that I seemed to be neither in need of the post’s support nor bent on burglary.

‘ Can you tell me what that light is over there?’ I asked him.

He looked at the glorious planet, just ready to dip from sight, and then at me. ’That ain’t no light; that’s a star,’ he said in a voice a trifle nettled, as if he suspected that I was trying to joke. Which I was — feeling just at that time a sort of doggish waggishness.

‘Is it?’ I returned. ‘What is the name of it?”

Now he was clearly disgusted. ‘Aw, I got too much to do to keep track of the names of the stars,’ he answered; and he started on, swinging his club and doing nothing else all through the gorgeous night.

And I wondered, if I should have asked the question of the first hundred citizens who passed me, how many would have given me a truer answer.

Astronomy, I believe, is called the most exact of the sciences. And it is one at least of the most fascinating, even to a smatterer — and I am no more than that. Its fundamentals are simplicity itself; they are more open to us than those of any other science; they are before us continually. But the average intelligent person appears to be far more indifferent to them than to the dirt under his feet.

What better proof of this than in our novels? Take the moon, for example. Surely, the reading public would rise up against the way novelists treat the moon if it were not equally careless of her goings and comings. She is the most familiar thing to us in all nature — much more so than the sun, for we can rarely ever look at him at all. Her habits throughout the ages are so exact that astronomers can calculate eclipses closely years in advance of them. Yet the simplest and most manifest of these habits seem to be about as comprehensively grasped by the general run of novelists as the idiotic fourth dimension.

Here are a few examples, from among those I have found in my more recent reading, of this violence to the moon — to her reputation in the matter of sane and steady habits: —

Stevenson, that master of romance, has a scene in Prince Otto in which — the time being somewhere between midnight and two o’clock—‘a thin shaving of new moon had lately risen.’

It was only on my second reading of Prince Otto that I noticed anything wrong with the arrangement, for the first time I was both ignorant, and careless of the moon’s ways. Stevenson’s attention, I have heard, was called to this impossible performance of a new moon and he was a good deal plagued about it. For a new moon always rises after the sun, and is invisible in the glare. And even an old moon, rising so early, would be far too big to be described as a thin shaving.

A popular French author, in a comparatively recent book, has a ' new moon’ rise at exactly three o’clock, when his hero is awakened to resume his perilous (and foolish) chase through the Alps after his runaway wife. As this latter author belongs to that large school of French writers who do not seem to be able to think of anything to write about except the infidelities of the married, I was not greatly distressed. But my feelings were lacerated when I read in a late book by a talented English author — a woman who stands in the very front rank of living novelists, and this her masterpiece and one of the most absorbing stories I ever read — the following (the time was the dusk of evening): ‘Low in the east, entangled in a clump of hawthorn, a thin moon hung blurred as if seen through tears.’

In the east! Of all places for a thin moon to hang at dusk! If she had put it right in the north she would have been nearer to nature, for it would not have been so far away from where it ought to have been. In the east, and in the evening, any moon that is behaving itself is always pretty full.

In A Bewitched Ship, an old sea story that I recently chanced to take up, written by the late W. Clark Russell, who himself had been a sailor (and sailors are supposed to be obliged to know some astronomy), I ran across this: ‘There was a nice wind, smooth sea, and a red moon crowding up over our starboard beam.’ The ship was bound for South Africa; so the moon was rising straight up in the west.

In a recent story by a very popular American author — one who enjoys a deserved fame for her attainments in nature studies — occurs the following: ‘The sun went down and a half moon appeared above the woods across the lake.’ And a little later: ‘The moon was high above the trees now.’

It is a painful thing, in view of the well-earned reputation of this author as an authority, to upset so graceful a word-picture of nature. It would all have been unassailable if she had omitted the size of the moon. But, as can be proved by any almanac, or by the poor, maligned moon herself, when she is half full she always is on the meridian at sunset. So she could not get up any higher.

Another gifted American novelist, in a much older book, as cheerfully mishandles the moon in a similar way. This truly fascinating story created a sensation some years ago, and also, I understand, a New England libel suit, so faithful and trenchant was her portrayal of people — not moons. This is what she says: ‘The red sunset had not gone out of the west when we started, and a pale young moon was already getting up in the heavens; but we could see neither fading sky nor rising moon,'

Oh, dear! With all her delightful wit, and her insight into the human heart, she never cared enough to notice that a moon which can be called young — no matter how pale — is never rising nor ‘getting up in the heavens’ after sunset, but always going down.

Branching out a little from the moon, I will cut short the evidence with what seems to me a most remarkable exhibit of the astronomy of fiction. It is from The Sowers, by Henry Seton Merriman. The scene was Russia, the time late October (this is important), and ‘Evening was drawing on . . . The moon was just rising . . . Jupiter — very near the earth at the time — shone intense and brilliant, like a lamp. It was an evening such as only Russia and the great North lands ever see, where the sunset is almost in the north and the sunrise holds it by the hand. Over the whole scene there hung a clear transparent night, green and shimmering, which would never be darker than an English twilight.’ Later: ‘It was now dark — as dark as it ever would be.’

It would indeed be a task to find description couched in more beautiful terms, but it also would be difficult to find more error crowded into so few words. For one thing, Jupiter is never very near, or comparatively near, the earth. Both Mars and Venus can at times be said to be near the earth — not at all because they always are very much nearer the earth than Jupiter ever comes, but because, when at their greatest distance, they are some five or six times farther away than when nearest. (I speak only in off-hand terms, for, as I have already confessed, I am no more than a smatterer in astronomy.) Jupiter, when most remote from the earth, is not much farther off, comparatively, than when nearest — the difference, I should say, being rather less than one third his maximum distance. And Jupiter always shines steady and serene, never with an ‘intense’ light, such as that of the great stars.

But those are the least important of the errors. The phenomenon of the sunrise holding the sunset by the hand is true enough in Russia — but only in summer, when the sun is north of the equator. The time the author selected for it is not more than two months off from the arctic midnight, and when the opposite condition prevails. In late October the night would be very long and very dark — except for his moon, about which he apparently forgot before he reached the end of his paragraph. As the moon was just rising when evening was drawing on, it would have to be nearly, if not quite full, and would be shining all night — though it is plain that he was attributing a night that ‘would never be darker than an English twilight’ to a closeness of evening to dawn.

Now, in venting verbal criticisms on such slipshod handling of nature by novelists, I have encountered no little cold water. The sole province of a story, I am told, is entertainment. Moons and such things are merely the trivial scenery and minor strokes that fill out the human interest and are of no real consequence at all. Not so, I contend — at least, not altogether so.

Art that is not true to nature is not art, but the artificial. Imagination, it is true, has a large place in art ; but when imagination transcends the bounds of the possible it must take on the guise either of fantasy or absurdity. And it is faithful minuteness in detail that makes for perfection. A single small calf with its tail on the wrong end would work riotous bathos in an otherwise faultless and charming picture. If I should read in a novel that the heroine, pale and trembling with anger, rode rapidly south in a taxicab on Twenty-third Street in New York City, or that a couple of boa constrictors lay sunning themselves on the shores of Baffin Bay, I should feel no more pained than in meeting with any one of the statements I have quoted — and not at all because of any faddishness on my part for the things of space.

While I read for entertainment, I get a good deal of it in learning a little something as I go along through life. And, as I am a simple and credulous soul, I am apt to accept anything I read as a fact until something obtrudes to stir my doubts. When I see in a book a reckless juggling with some subject upon which I chance to know a little, my confidence in that author is weakened, at least. If he takes such liberties with one subject, may he not ignore facts on matters in which I am totally, unversed and fill me full of information that is not so at all?