clock menu more-arrow no yes

Solar eclipses have been a science fiction theme for thousands of years

How storytellers throughout history have used the phenomenon to portray terror, emotional stakes, and more.

A solar eclipse
NASA

Storytellers have long fixated on the awe-inspiring phenomenon that is a total solar eclipse. From ancient myths about dragons eating the sun to hundreds of more contemporary depictions — in Stephen King’s 1992 novel Dolores Claiborne, the 2006 film Apocalypto, or any number of sci-fi TV shows — eclipses have been so present in fiction that they can be traced through literally thousands of years’ worth of storytelling, across a wide range of mediums.

Mapped across history, these depictions can provide insight into everything from a writer’s cultural identity to how scientific advancement changed the way humans interpret natural phenomena. But how accurate are they? How are solar eclipses portrayed differently across different mediums? What kinds of narrative trends have they been part of?

As millions of Americans prepare to witness the first total solar eclipse in the US in 38 years, I turned to Lisa Yaszek, a professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech University and former president of the Science Fiction Research Association, to discuss the history, meanings, and accuracy of eclipses in fiction. Here’s what I learned.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Fictional representations of solar eclipses are often used to underline a specific plot point

Abbey White

What are the key scientific aspects of a solar eclipse that must be present for an accurate depiction?

Liza Yaszek

In the case of a solar eclipse on Earth, authors and directors want to make sure they get all the heavenly objects in question lined up, and that it’s clear the moon is between the sun and the Earth. They also want to make sure they’ve got a duration that makes sense. Solar eclipses usually last just a few minutes, while lunar eclipses can go on for hours.

Of course, if the story takes place on a different planet, or if for some reason the Earth, say, suddenly has a second artificial moon, the author or director will have more wiggle room. The key is to make sure the audience doesn’t suddenly look up and ask, “How could it possibly be this way?”

Abbey White

What kinds of storytelling points are eclipses usually associated with?

Lisa Yaszek

Well, with an eclipse, particularly a solar eclipse, the laws of nature seem to be suspended. Day becomes night, the temperature drops, animals start making noises. There’s a wonderful description by NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller about how with eclipses this biological sense of dread just takes over. It can be like you’re standing on another planet.

An eclipse feels like a moment where something is wrong or different, so if you have a story that’s trying to comment on how, say, a certain set of political or social relationships are wrong, or how it’s time for a change in your characters, an eclipse can be a symbol of that. In that case, it might not be so much a matter of getting it accurate and more a matter of representing our own experiences with eclipses. That means we don’t always see the full eclipse; they don’t always last the full two to three minutes. Sometimes you just get a few emotional seconds of it.

The first science fiction story to feature a solar eclipse got the science totally wrong

Abbey White

Would you say that with the creative freedom and logistical restrictions of storytelling through visual media, you get inaccurate depictions of eclipses as a result?

Lisa Yaszek

Actually, one of the greatest scientific fails of all time is in a print science fiction story. We do tend to assume that with written stories, because writers have more time and thus less pressure on them, that they’ll have done much more careful research and incorporate a much more scientifically sound depiction. But the first science fiction story that featured an eclipse totally blew it. The novel, King Solomon’s Mines, was written by H. Rider Haggard and in theory it was the first modern — or you could say respected — science fiction novel to feature a solar eclipse.

When the first edition came out, a lot of readers said that Haggard had completely misrepresented a solar eclipse as something that could last for hours, rather than just a few minutes. There were so many complaints about it that in future editions of the book, they had to change it to a lunar eclipse, because that was the only way the science could match the story. In a 1937 film based on the book, they changed it back to a solar eclipse, as that looks more dramatic on the screen than a lunar eclipse would.

Abbey White

What’s the most accurate depiction of a solar eclipse you’ve seen onscreen?

Lisa Yaszek

The 1961 movie Barabbas. It’s the story of Jesus Christ on the cross. They were shooting in Italy, and it just so happened there really was a solar eclipse on the day they were shooting the crucifixion scene.

There is a history of Christian mythology that claims there was a solar eclipse on the day Jesus was crucified, so the director was so excited. Everyone was like, “We’re never going to be able to catch this; it’s never going to work.” But they managed to capture the complete eclipse — everyone stayed in character, production ran with it. It’s considered one of the craziest moments in filmmaking history.

Abbey White

Is there one medium that seems to depict eclipses more accurately than others?

Lisa Yaszek

I think that print versus visual media offers different ways to approach eclipses. The thing that you always get in written stories, which is very hard to convey in something like a television show, is the scientific explanation. You can spend a lot of time writing out the reasoning for solar eclipses and spend a lot of time in people’s head. Print is very good at giving us a look into people’s psyches.

What you get in visual science fiction with film and television and video games is the ability to convey one particular aspect of the solar eclipse — that striking image of when day becomes night. There’s more focus on the visual impact. You can also effectively convey psychological states, as it dramatizes senses of wonder and dread. A director can do a close-up on one person who is reacting, then pan back onto a whole group of people. You can capture the emotion of it on a different scale.

In video games, eclipses are usually just a narrative mechanism to unleash beasts for killing. Having said that, gamers will tell you that this is an entirely appropriate use of eclipses in game narratives. They see the eclipse and feel an almost literal sense of dread as they prepare for the onslaught of new monsters. Video games can convey the strong emotions that often accompany a solar eclipse, but it’s definitely a more body-driven response.

The way storytellers depict eclipses has evolved along with humans’ ability to predict them

Abbey White

How far back do eclipses go as storytelling devices?

Lisa Yaszek

Eclipses [in storytelling] actually go back to the Epic of Gilgamesh [in 2100 BC]. Many versions of the stories about the deaths of Jesus and Mohammed’s son Ibrahim suggest there was an eclipse at the time of their deaths. Other early and important ones include Shakespeare’s Othello [1603] and John Milton’s Paradise Lost [1667], which includes a description of the fear an eclipse engenders. [There’s also Milton’s] Samson Agonistes, where an eclipse is a metaphor for adult-onset blindness.

William Wordsworth’s 1820 poem The Eclipse of the Sun [is] one of the first rational, scientific depictions of solar eclipses, but it’s also super racist. It describes the interest of white people and fear of brown people in the face of an eclipse. Georges Méliès’s 1907 short film “The Eclipse, or the Courtship of the Sun and Moon” is the first instance of a solar eclipse in visual media.

Abbey White

Have representations of solar eclipses changed over time?

Lisa Yaszek

There seems to be a really consistent pattern in how stories of solar eclipses work. It’s pegged largely to human understanding of science. What you find is that in cultures that existed prior to the advent of contemporary scientific and technological culture — or before the industrial revolution — everyone tells stories of eclipses being about dread.

The word “eclipse” is derived from the Greek term for abandonment. Early stories from across the world treat this as a time of chaos and misrule, with dragons eating the sun, punishment by the gods for error, or even serving as a prelude to the apocalypse. These stories are really pervasive and really transcend culture.

Stories featuring eclipses have often centered on themes of dominance, discrimination, and dread

Abbey White

When did things start to shift?

Lisa Yaszek

So by the 1600 and 1700s, as Western people started to become interested in astronomy and started creating the first almanac, they were able to successfully predict when a solar eclipse would happen. All of a sudden, we got stories about using eclipses against more superstitious people.

What you first started to see were stories about adventurers who had gone out and used the almanac to manipulate indigenous people. There was a very popular story that Christopher Columbus had used his knowledge of solar eclipses to get what he wanted out of some of the indigenous Americans he met with.

That idea very much became central to the first two science fiction stories about solar eclipses. There was King Solomon’s Mine and a variation on that, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s about a time traveler who goes back to early Europe and uses his knowledge of solar eclipses to prevent being executed and to help become a person of influence in King Arthur’s court. In early science fiction we get a lot of examples of how white Western people used their knowledge to exert dominance over other people.

Abbey White

How long did that era of solar eclipse storytelling last?

Lisa Yaszek

That played itself out by the 1930s and ’40s, where you saw another shift in the kind of stories we were telling — a shift that focused on the point of view of scientists and how even scientific experts experience wonder and fear when an eclipse happens. The most famous example of this is Isaac Asimov's 1941 short story “Nightfall,” where it’s not the eclipse that’s the problem but what it reveals.

More recently — this isn’t fiction, it’s narrative nonfiction — Annie Dillard has an amazing essay about a 1979 solar eclipse and how she felt like she was going to die. So we get those stories as well, with the sense that even though we scientifically understand this stuff, we can still experience an intense sense of awe.

Abbey White

Have there been any new trends in how eclipses are represented in media?

Lisa Yaszek

In mapping stories about solar eclipses, I found one trend that I think is worth noting. In the last 20 to 30 years, we’ve seen a small but significant number of stories about people who have traditionally been discriminated against in our society — women, the mentally ill, criminals, and even indigenous peoples — experience a reversal of fortunes when the moon takes center stage and blots out the sun. In the stories, when the solar eclipse happens, they experience things that allow them to change the world for the better.

In David Twohy’s movie Pitch Black [2000], it’s all about a criminal who turns out to be a pretty handy and helpful guy during a dangerous solar eclipse. There are two Simpsons episodes where Marge, who is often kind of sidelined or doesn’t have a big plot impact, has these big, critical insights that happen to her during an eclipse. We’re starting to see stories where with solar eclipses the monsters come out, but maybe the monsters are the good guys. That’s something I think is really important when it comes to solar eclipses. They provide us a different perspective on things.

One of fiction’s oddest depictions of a solar eclipse is in a Little Rascals film that takes a racist turn

Abbey White

What would you say is the oddest depiction of a solar eclipse you’ve ever seen in fiction?

Lisa Yaszek

The oddest is a short film — a Little Rascals film from 1935 called Little Sinner. The story’s about two of the boys who decide they want to skip church and go fishing. They almost get caught, but a solar eclipse happens, confusion ensues, and they get away with what they wanted to do. It’s a good example of a solar eclipse changing how society works: Kids get away with something they’re not supposed to.

But the reason they get away with it is because they get lost and end up going to a black church revival when the eclipse happens, and apparently somehow these black Americans don’t know what an eclipse is, so they have that very stereotypical reaction of confusion and fear, which causes chaos for the boys. So it’s odd in that you don’t expect the show to play around with scientific concepts, [and] then the way it plays out is so stereotypical and really horrible.

Abbey White

How about the scariest depiction?

Lisa Yaszek

I’ve got a story, but it’s not exactly about an eclipse. It’s about syzygy, which is when a bunch of solar objects line up in a straight line. Technically an eclipse is a syzygy because the sun, the moon, and the Earth all line up.

[The story that comes to mind is] a book by Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin, and it’s called The Three-Body Problem. The problem in that story is that there’s this alien world that rotates around a trinary star system — it has three stars — and whenever the stars line up, the alien planet experiences cataclysmic natural disasters, all of civilization dies, and they have to rebuild from scratch.

Eventually they find Earth and they realize we don’t have that problem, so they decide they are going to come here and take over the planet.

Some of the most interesting depictions of eclipses in fiction, like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey, boast an especially unique perspective

Abbey White

What would you say is the prettiest depiction of an eclipse in media?

Lisa Yaszek

I’m not sure if eclipses are necessarily pretty as much as they are awe-inspiring, but I think the eclipse that opens 2001: A Space Odyssey is really interesting. You see the sun and the moon and the Earth in alignment, but you realize very quickly that you’re not actually seeing that eclipse from the Earth. You’re at some vantage point beyond the Earth, and presumably it’s from the vantage point of the aliens who plant the monolith. I think that is mind-blowing, a little disorienting, and awe-inspiring.

Abbey White

Have you ever come across a depiction of an eclipse in fiction that has been particularly emotionally resonant for you?

Lisa Yaszek

I think one of the most profound eclipses is in Asimov's short story “Nightfall.” This is a story about a planet that has six suns, and they’re in for their first solar eclipse in 3,000 years. Although this culture never sees the dark, they have enough scientific records to know what they’re in for — or at least they think they do.

Everyone is ready to go, and then the solar eclipse happens and the stars come out. They’ve never seen the stars before, and they don’t know what they are. It reminds us that even when we think we know everything associated with a natural phenomenon, something can come and surprise us, delight us, or terrorize us. We can never assume that science can tell us everything.