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Imaginary Earths: Countless Falling Stars

"Shooting stars" rain down on Big Bend National Park in Texas in this photo of the 2016 Perseid meteor shower.
"Shooting stars" rain down on Big Bend National Park in Texas in this photo of the 2016 Perseid meteor shower. (Image credit: Jason Weingart/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The series "Imaginary Earths" speculates what the world might be like if one key aspect of life changed, be it related to the planet or with humanity itself. 

On Earth, there are many traces of earthshaking cosmic impacts. To name just two: Meteor Crater in Arizona, which is about 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) wide, and the Chicxulub crater, centered off the coast of Mexico, which is more than 110 miles (180 km) wide and was likely caused by the asteroid strike that ended the age of dinosaurs.

What if the world were constantly bombarded with space-rock smashups, big enough and frequent enough to shape the course of entire cultures? In my science-fiction novelette "By the Will of the Gods," appearing in the January-February 2021 issue of Analog magazine, I explored this scenario on a fictional planet called Pell. Here's what such a world might be like.

Dangerous meteor strikes are rare in recorded history on Earth, but the 2013 fireball explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, is proof they could easily wreak havoc on humanity. Scientists estimated the Chelyabinsk asteroid was about 62 feet (19 m) wide and weighed about 13,200 tons (12,000 metric tons), and that the total energy of the explosion was equivalent to a detonation of about 500 kilotons of TNT. In comparison, the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki each had the explosive power of only about 16 kilotons of TNT.

Related: Asteroid shower rained space rocks on Earth and the moon 800 million years ago

How might societies on Pell view such cosmic impacts? In ancient stories such as those of Atlantis or Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of cities is often linked with some kind of divine wrath. As such, cultures on that fictional world might likely see cosmic strikes as punishment from the gods. In "By the Will of the Gods," the term for a victim of a cosmic impact is "starcrossed," and an entire starcrossed culture — called the Kingdom of the Golden Delta — was struck by a cosmic impact back in ancient history. This kingdom is modeled after the many Earth civilizations that developed around river deltas, such as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the novelette, Deltans experience centuries of bigotry after the impact forced them from their homeland That's not so different from the intolerance often faced by refugee and diaspora populations across history on Earth.

Very superstitious

What other social effects might cosmic impacts have if they were commonplace? In an interview with the South China Morning Post, cultural anthropologist Joseph Bosco suggested that superstitions may come from a desire to control the environment, a need that might prove especially strong in the face of random events. Being constantly beset by random disasters in the form of meteor showers might mean societies cling to superstition even into their modern eras.

(Even now on Earth, without a barrage of space rocks, many  superstitions are common in the modern day: the belief in elves and fairies in Iceland, or in jinns across Muslim societies, or in witchcraft in Africa, or in astrology across the world. )

One response to this added unpredictability might be a religion that centers around fortune-telling. Since many disasters in life can't be explained, I thought it might make sense that institutions might emerge to help impose a sense of meaning and structure onto the world, where people could look for aid or for control over their own fate.

Scientists have also found that emotions concerning uncertainty about the world not only lead people to embrace the paranormal, but also to harbor beliefs in vast conspiracies and support  strong governments, according to research published in 2015 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Beams of light

Given the extraordinary damage that cosmic impacts could have on civilizations that emerge on a planet like Pell, societies there might eventually focus a lot of effort on deflecting incoming rocks. For instance, a great deal of scientific research and development might be devoted to creating giant laser arrays to blast such rocks into oblivion.

Any technology built for one purpose often ends up finding other uses as well. As such, Pell's giant laser arrays help drive interplanetary exploration, propelling light sails across space. Of course, any spacecraft flying in space around Pell might get destroyed by impacts with meteoroids too small to spot.

I reasoned that any laser arrays in space would likely be solar-powered, which reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke's Hugo and Nebula award-winning "Rendezvous with Rama." In that novel, the society that emerges on Mercury becomes a major interplanetary power due to all the solar energy it receives from Mercury's proximity to the sun, using this energy to fire laser beams and launch mined metals across the solar system. In "By the Will of the Gods," the story is set on a city within the innermost planet of Pell's system, in part because of all the solar energy available there.

So there you have it. A world that marries a superstitious culture with interplanetary exploration. It's amazing fun to imagine how changing one aspect of life on Earth might have all kinds of ripple effects.

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