On Friday, February 15, a meteorite shot through Chelyabinsk, Russia. Within a day, the New York Times published "A Flash in Russian Skies, as Inspiration for Fantasy" by John Williams. (Not the John Williams who scored such outer-space operas as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Star Wars," and "E.T.," though that would've been awesome.)
Williams asked a few people, including "Lost" producer Damon Lindelof and Syfy Channel president Dave Howe, to pitch a movie based on the incident. Go ahead, read it. The exercise feels a bit hollow, the contributions a bit forced. Even Williams comes off like he's grinning too hard. I sympathize completely. What to do with such a brain-scrambler of an event but try to capture it inside of a high-concept plot proposal, turn it into a game of water-cooler what-if? We all did it.
But it didn't work. We were silly to think it would.
I've been pondering this longer than most. On March 12, my novel Scowler ($16.99, Delacourte) comes out. It's about a mother, daughter, and son struggling on an Iowa farm when the banished family patriarch escapes from prison to have his revenge. At a critical moment halfway through the book, a meteorite slices through the sky and buries itself in the cornfield, disrupting the father's plans for execution --and inspiring an equally unwelcome set of new plans.
I'm not the first, or one-hundred-and-first, to use such a device. As Williams duly notes, H.G. Wells was sharpening this blade long before the sci-fi films of the 50s took up the strap, filling their low-budget fallen rocks with everything from mutant bugs to gelatinous blobs. I think we can all agree that a falling meteorite is a splendid way to begin a story. "What is this? Let's find out. Oh, no."
Move that crashing meteorite to the end of the story and it becomes, at worst, a deus ex machina, and, at best, the stopwatch our characters must race to come to terms with their lives before the final curtain. Tears are shed. Forgiveness is offered. Roll credits. Cue the John Williams score.
But what happened in Russia has the makings of something far more disturbing. No slave to narrative convention, Russia's meteorite fell not at the beginning or end of our story, but right in the middle, just like the one in Scowler. That fiery streak across the blue skies of the Ural Mountains, captured by too many Russian dashboard cams, is like a wound photographed from dozens of angles by an overenthusiastic surgeon. Whether or not we like it, the resulting scar is going to forever remind of us something:
Elements of true chaos exist.
There is the chaos of accident, two vehicles making two miscues at a single wrong instant. There is the chaos of the lone gunman exacting a slaughter only he understands. There is the chaos of an infant's sudden, unexplained death. We can grapple with these; barely, but we can.
But a god tossing pieces of planets down upon us like dice? We stopped believing in that centuries ago. Each of us has assembled and familiarized ourselves with scripts, entire libraries of them, informing us how life is supposed to unfold. Bolts from the blue? That's just poor fiction. That's just irresponsible writing. Because after that? Whoosh -- there go the scripts.
There is no text for what happens next. Well, there is Scowler. It's one response, anyway, swirling within the limited orbit of a single, humble little rock. Of course, there are plenty of other rocks hidden out there too. Like the citizens of Chelyabinsk, you can search for them if you'd like. Look -- right there in the dirt, maybe. Keep your head down and your eyes to the Earth. Just one piece of advice. Whatever you do, don't look up at the sky.