A great green comet made of lethal carbon monoxide is hurtling towards the Earth. Cue apocalyptic panic. So far so Hollywood disaster movie. But the similarity between Camille Flammarion's novel Omega (1894) and the film Armageddon (1998) — in which Bruce Willis destroys himself to destroy a comet before it destroys the Earth — ends at comets. The one in Omega misses the Earth by itself, albeit by a narrow, spectacular margin. It’s only then that the narrative heart of the novel begins to pump in earnest. Suddenly we shoot forward to the 100th century AD, when evolution has refined the human senses and supplied two new ones, an electric and a psychic, “by which communication at a distance is possible”. Several more million years pass, and as the Sun cools the Earth begins to freeze over. The last surviving humans, Omegar and Eva, accept that they are soon to die. But before they do so a spirit whisks them off to Jupiter, where they find the rest of humanity living in cleansed and purified form. This might seem like a natural end to a novel centrally concerned with the transmigration and final destination of human souls. Yet Flammarion refuses to stop there. In the last pages of the book the whole solar system dies, followed by the cosmos itself, making way for new universes: “And these universes passed away in their turn. But infinite space remained, peopled with worlds, and stars, and souls, and suns; and time went on forever. For there can be neither end nor beginning.”
Flammarion was a very popular and influential author — a kind of Carl Sagan of his day, capable of both scientific rigour and mystical flamboyance, sometimes on the same page. Adam Roberts, in his The History of Science Fiction (2016), referred to him as “The major figure of 19th-century mystical science fiction”. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells both owe debts to him. A year after Omega appeared in English, Wells published The Time Machine (1895) which imagines the Earth’s last inhabitant, thirty million years hence, to be a monstrous crab moving slowly along a desolate beach, as the universe freezes towards its final moment. Flammarion, though, was not primarily a writer. He was better known as an astronomer, who observed unusual stellar phenomena — particularly novae — first as a student at the Paris Observatoire, and later at his own observatory just south of the capital. He also made several aerial voyages over Paris, at a time when ballooning was still a risky business, to gather meteorological data (and perhaps to get even closer to the super-earthly realms that so preoccupied him).
Featured here is the first English translation of Omega, published by The Cosmopolitan Publishing Company (New York) in 1894. In 1999, it was brought back into print by Bison Books, complete with an introduction by Robert Silverberg and all the moody, wonderful illustrations of the original (a selection of which we've featured below).
Jan 25, 2018