7 Real Natural Events that Inspired Works of Science Fiction

Science fiction is filled with tales that pit humanity against the natural world: earthquakes, meteor strikes, Sharknados. While some of those stories are birthed from abstract (or entirely made-up) fears, others are inspired by specific occurrences—comets, catastrophes, and climate events.

Top image: Biela's Comet via Wikimedia Commons.

The Year Without a Summer: In April 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. It was the largest volcanic eruption since the Hatepe eruption in AD 180, and it pumped massive amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. It's generally believed that the climate effects of the eruption were the cause of 1816's "Year Without a Summer." Thanks to the global temperature drop, spring and summer in 1816 in the Northern Hemisphere were cold and dreary, causing crops to fail and livestock to die, and triggering massive food shortages.

It's also the year that a group of artistically minded friends gathered on a Swiss holiday, and decided to occupy themselves during the incessant rain by telling scary stories. Famously, this gathering gave us the seeds of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and a poem by Lord Byron that inspired John William Polidori to write The Vampyre.

One of those works, however, was directly related to the weather. Lord Byron wrote his famous poem "Darkness," recounting a future in which the sun has gone out and humanity is left in permanent darkness. Unlike many of its contemporary apocalyptic works, "Darkness" doesn't end with any kind of divine salvation for humanity; instead, humans lose their faith in God as they perish at last, leaving only the silent darkness of the universe behind.

The Passage of Halley's Comet in 1910: Halley's Comet caused a bit of an apocalyptic uproar during 1910 thanks to the astronomer Camille Flammarion. Flammarion was himself a bit of a science fiction writer, having written, among other works, La Fin du Monde (The End of the World) in 1893. And how does Flammarion imagine humanity might meet its end in his pre-apocalyptic novel? By being struck by a comet. Flammarion must have still had killer comets on the brain when he publicly stated that he believed that the cyanogenic gasses from the tail of Halley's Comet "would impregnate [the Earth’s] atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet." After the New York Times picked up that quote, there was a craze for things like comet pills and comet-shielding gas masks.

Many scholars believe that Flammarion's claim inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1913 novella The Poison Belt, which has the Earth passing through a band of toxic ether. But the passage of Halley's Comet certainly inspired the early disaster film The Comet.

Of course, Halley's Comet and the hoopla it attracts have inspired works of fiction for centuries. Back in 1681, after the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1680, Bernard de Fontenelle wrote his play La Comète, ridiculing the superstitious belief that the comet's appearance causes negative effects.

The Passage of Biela's Comet in 1832: We don't hear much about Biela's Comet anymore as it likely disintegrated in 1852, but in the 19th century it caused its own stir. During Biela's 1832 approach, astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers calculated that the comet would cross Earth's orbit on October 29th. (Earth, fellow astronomer François Arago noted, would not reach that same point in its orbit until a month later.)

Naturally, the idea of a comet whose path intersected with Earth's captured the public imagination, including that of Russian writer Prince Vladimir Odoevsky. Odoevsky wrote two stories inspired by Biela's Comet, "Two Days in the Life of the Terrestrial Globe" and his unfinished novel The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters. In the former, the approaching comet is the chief topic of conversation at a soirée. In the latter, we tour the futuristic St. Petersburg of 4338 as the world's superpowers try to find a way to save Earth from its impending impact with Biela's Comet.

7 Real Natural Events that Inspired Works of Science Fiction

The Tunguska Event: Now we know that the 1908 explosion that knocked down 80 million trees in Siberia was likely caused by an icy comet or meteorite impact, but for decades, writers of all stripes have been fascinated by the Tunguska mystery. It pops up in Spider Robinson's Callahan's Key, David Brin's Earth, and novels from the Stargate, Star Trek, and Doctor Who universes (not mention numerous comics). But it also features prominently in Stanisław Lem's first science fiction novel, The Astronauts, and Thomas Pynchon's historical novel Against the Day.

Arthur C. Clarke opens Rendezvous with Rama with an account of the Tunguska Event:

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. On June 30, 1908, Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometers—a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe.

He goes on to describe a similar (fictional) impact event, this one in the year 2077, that wakes the denizens of Earth up to the need for a space defense program.

The Charlevoix-Kamouraska Earthquake: On February 28, 1925, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit Eastern Canada, with its epicenter in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. Although it did little damage, it was the most powerful earthquake to hit Canada during the 20th century.

7 Real Natural Events that Inspired Works of Science Fiction

It also may have inspired one detail from H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu." The blog Miskatonic Museum notes (as do several other sources) that the Charlevoix-Kamouraska earthquake happened on the same date as a significant Lovecraftian earthquake: the February 28th earthquake that hits the South Pacific and shakes the peaks of R'lyeh above the water.

Image via Miskatonic Museum.

The Great Smog of 1952: The Great Smog that pervaded the air of London in late 1952 was only a partially natural event—after all, much of the smog's pollution was created by Londoners burning coal. But a series of specific weather conditions collected the pollutants to create the deadly smog that burned people's eyes and lungs, made visibility too poor to drive anywhere, and left an estimated 12,000 dead.

It's actually surprising that the smog doesn't show up in science fiction more, especially in environmentally themed fiction. But it's a prominent part of the Doctor Who novel Amorality Tale, featuring the Third Doctor, and perhaps more significantly, is the villain of China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun.

2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami: The undersea megathrust earthquake that was centered near Sumatra, Indonesia, created a devastating tsunami, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. In some parts of India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, the death tolls among women were four times as likely as the death tolls among men. A report from Oxfam suggests a number of reasons for the disproportionate death rates: In some regions, women were likely to be waiting on the beach for their fishermen husbands to return; in one, a large number of women happened to be bathing in the ocean when the tsunami hit. In others, the women were more likely to be home caring for the children while the men were more likely to be at sea, where the tsunami proved less deadly. On top of the death and damage, the tsunami left some areas with a profound gender imbalance.

This was one of the inspirations behind Karen Lord's novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. After the Sadiri homeworld is obliterated, the only surviving members of the race are the Sadiri who happened to be off-world at the time—most of them male. After reading accounts of villages where so many women perished, Lord imagined what it might be like for an entire alien race to experience a similar, sudden, unbalancing destructive event.