“Inconstant Moon” by Larry Niven begs the questions: If this was your last night on Earth what would you do? More importantly, who would you choose to be with?
“What I wanted was someone who would join my…farewell party without asking the wrong questions.” –Stan, “Inconstant Moon”
This story begins in San Diego, California late one night when Stan notices that the moon is alarmingly bright, big, and getting bigger. Its glow is dimming the street lights, it’s bright enough to read by and getting brighter by the minute. He can’t even see any of the stars because the moon is outshining everything.
Stan writes science fiction articles for a living so the lucky reader gets a bit of an elementary astronomy lesson in this one. Stan mulls over the facts: moonlight is reflected sunlight, therefore if the moon is becoming brighter, it must be because the sun is getting brighter as well (aaaahhhh, said the audience in shared realization). But the sun getting brighter could only mean one thing: it’s going nova.
A nova is the nuclear explosion of a white dwarf, which causes a sudden brightening of the star.
Stan knows that if the sun were to explode, it would instantly heat the air and create a boiling hot steam that will surely make its way through the entire planet and simmer them all to smithereens. And that nova could bring any number of natural disasters on his side of the earth until it hits them in California. But they just might have until sunrise before it does.
As the nova weather begins to descend upon them in the form of intense rain, icy hail and gusty winds. Stan and his girlfriend Leslie feed off the energy that inadvertently fuels their bravery. If it’s their last night on earth, why spend it huddling under the bedcovers crying? They head to a diner for hot fudge sundaes, a bar for Irish coffees and a Pink Lady, and then decide to have a picnic on the beach.
When the weather worsens they head to Leslie’s apartment to have their picnic indoors. All the while Stan’s mind is analyzing the weather as it comes and changes, wracking his brain trying to figure out what is happening. “The nova shock wave would have had to travel about four thousand miles – at least a five hour trip from the pole”. However, none of Stan’s predictions are coming true. Based on what’s happened so far, he realizes it wasn’t a shock wave after all. It was a solar flare.
A flare is a sudden, rapid, and intense variation in brightness. A solar flare occurs when magnetic energy that has built up in the atmosphere is suddenly released. Radiation is emitted across virtually the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves at the long wavelength end, through optical emission to x-rays and gamma rays at the short wavelength end.
The streets are now flooded as they make their way to Leslie’s apartment and then struggle to carry the bags of food for their picnic up the fourteen flights of stairs. The wind and rain are roaring ferociously outside and fearing that the windows might shatter, Stan and Leslie decide to pile all the pillows and blankets into the kitchen and hunker down behind the cabinets for safety. They open up a bottle of champagne but drink without toasting. What could they possibly toast to now? A full-force hurricane has hit, and all they can do is wait it out.
By morning the hurricane is still howling outside. Stan takes note of how little food he and Leslie have stored up, only enough for a week at the most. The flooding will make it nearly impossible to venture out into the city, and the destruction will have been catastrophic by now. He and Leslie will have to fare through flooding, more storms, famine and the city’s potential for starvation in the coming weeks depending on how many people have survived. Those living on the lower floors will most likely be searching for higher ground soon too, if the flooding worsens. What if they pool the amount of food they have with the neighbors and it’s still not enough?
Last night life had been simple. The world was ending, there were mere hours left of their lives, and he and Leslie were happily running throughout San Diego seizing the moment. Now Stan was wishing it had been a nova after all. From now on life will be much, much worse than having been killed by the nova before sunrise.