It was 1985 or thereabouts. I was ten or maybe eleven, and my school friend Chris Ives gave me a book with a big chunk bitten out of one corner. Why? Well, his family belonged to a mail order book club. I don’t know if those things really exist anymore but, as best as I can recall, people were enticed to become members with a bunch of books at ridiculous knock-down prices and would then be compelled to buy a fixed number of books per month from the company’s glossy catalogue. It always struck me as a frightening scheme to fleece people of their money, like those limited edition painted plates of “Kings and Queens of England” or “Farming through the Ages” they used to advertise in Sunday paper magazines. Anyway, the Ives family belonged to this book club and one day, unable to get the book through the letterbox, the postman popped it through the window of their downstairs toilet where it was immediately set upon by Lucy, the family cocker spaniel. Lucy, like most cocker spaniels, was extremely friendly, utterly daft and a passionate hater of the written word. Chris’ family complained and had fresh books sent out but they still had the dog-savaged book, which Chris duly gave to me, bound up with a strip of plastic tape.
It was a tie-in book to the ITV television series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, a programme I did not see at the time nor have since. The TV show was a thirteen part documentary about unexplained phenomena, including UFOs, yetis and ball lightning, and the book (not actually written by Arthur C. Clarke) was a more detailed exploration of these. I devoured the book, but one particular chapter gripped me like no other. That chapter was my first introduction to the Tunguska Event.
The Tunguska Event was an explosion that occurred on June 30th 1908 not far from the Tunguska River in Siberia. The explosion was a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb (which would not be dropped for another 37 years), measured 5.0 on the Richter scale and was sufficiently powerful to knock down 80,000,000 trees over the surrounding 800 square miles. The ice particles thrown out by the event caused the night skies to glow across Europe and Asia for weeks to follow.
Imagine a ten or maybe eleven year old boy reading this. Why had we not been taught about this in school? An unexplained explosion! Effects spread across half the globe! Eighty million trees! Eighty million! And, equally astounding, not a single human fatality.
The most likely explanation for the event is a comet or asteroid strike – Wikipedia states this as bald fact in its entry – but there has always been speculation about the cause. There were no eye-witnesses close to the event epicentre and, because of the remote location and the chaos caused to Russia by World War I and the subsequent revolution, the first formal expedition to investigate the event did not reach the site until 1921. Despite being a global incident, the Tunguska Event has only ever been studied from a historical perspective.
Was it really an asteroid strike? Or was it the explosion caused by a crashing alien spaceship? The chances of an impact so far from human habitation are arguably low, perhaps enough to indicate it was a deliberate life-saving act. Or was it a miniature black-hole passing through the earth? Or even the catastrophic outcome of one of Nikola Tesla’s more outlandish experiments? All have been put forward as serious suggestions.
Yes, it was almost certainly an asteroid or comet but the lack of total certainty is enough to engender a sense of mystery and awe.
A couple of years ago, I started writing The Gears of Madness, an interwoven series of steampunk stories set in an alternate universe where Queen Victoria’s empire stretched beyond the bounds of earth and into space. The first story was set in 1902. Subsequent stories carried the narrative through the first decade of the twentieth century. And, suddenly, 1908 was upon me… How could I possibly leave the Tunguska Event out of a world-hopping story of bold Victorian adventurers and mad scientists? I didn’t. It became a central plot element in the final third of the book and the cause of the event in my story… Well, it’s none of the above, not quite.
June 2015 is the 107th anniversary of the Tunguska Event and, with the publication of The Gears of Madnessupon us, Heide Goody (my frequent co-writer, constant editor and publisher for life) decided that a little celebration was in order. I’m not aware of many natural disasters or planetary mishaps that have been given a birthday cake but Heide approached it with a level of professionalism that one must approve of. Over chocolate icing representing the muddy Siberian taiga, Heide laid a fallen forest of Matchmaker sticks. There aren’t eighty million but we must allow her some artistic licence. And then, for the asteroid/comet (she has opted for asteroid/comet option, partly because it is the most credible explanation and partly because it’s hard to fashion a confectionary black hole) Heide selected a white chocolate truffle. Apparently there was some debate in the sweet shop but I do think white chocolate does perhaps nicely represent the icy composition of a comet.
So, cut yourself a slice and join with us in celebrating the 107thanniversary of the Tunguska Event, the most astounding, world-shaking, mystery-making and fatality-free natural disaster of modern times.
The Gears of Madness is available to buy from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.