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Total Eclipses of the Sun as Depicted in the Modern Popular Novel

Presentation #350.08 in the session The Sun and the Solar System — iPoster Session.

Published onJun 29, 2022
Total Eclipses of the Sun as Depicted in the Modern Popular Novel

Total solar eclipses [TSEs] appear in art, music, and folklore. Yet studies of astronomy’s role in novels heretofore have been limited to those deemed “serious literature.” What about more common popular works of fiction circa the turn of the twenty-first century? Did the quantity and accuracy of book-length fiction, which includes in its narrative an actual total eclipse of the Sun, increase in the English-speaking world since 1) the TSE of 2017 or 2) that of 1999? By ”historical,” I mean a historically and scientifically accurate solar eclipse.

I set about testing this hypothesis as described below. The 21 August 2017 total eclipse of the Sun, the first over American soil since 1991 (Hawaii, 11 July), was visible to most Americans. The 11 August 1999 TSE was—effectively—the first such observable from England in 275 years. Both events were publicised to a greater degree than ever before, due to new media formats in the latter twentieth/early twenty-first centuries. Testing my proposition demanded a large-scale survey of modern popular novels. My database was the Kindle book library of Amazon.com. I used the Kindle search function to find eclipse references in a book title or text, 1980-2019. Availability limits me to these dates. Those interested in my search algorithm are welcome to contact me directly. To gauge the verisimilitude of eclipse prose, I relied partly on the published professional literature and partly on my recollection of the seven TSEs that I have witnessed. I looked at the circumstances of the eclipse, the contemporary manner of observing, and other astronomical asides. Locations based on the relationship to a total-eclipse centreline (line of maximum eclipse) were checked with their latitudes and longitudes. Times and dates were compared to almanacs. Objects described as visible in the sky during totality were matched to sky charts.

Addressing my hypothesis: No statistical analysis is possible with so small a data set. My conclusion must be anecdotal. All of the qualifying books that I found were published in 2003 or later. That suggests that major writing occurred after the 1999 TSE. This was ascertainable by communication with the writer or implicit within the pages of the texts themselves. There is obviously a cluster of novels published circa the year 2017, with more perhaps to come. The ten volumes considered are — for the most part — veritable regarding total eclipses of the Sun. (One exception did not go through normal editorial review.) Where significant ahistoricity does occur among ”eclipse books,’ it is intentional—the prerogative of any novelist.

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