Anyone who knows anything about astronomy knows that comets tend to arrive in our skies for several weeks, sometimes months. This is certainly the case with Halley’s Comet, which I remember seeing on a wonderful clear morning (~4am) in March 1986, while on a school hiking expedition in the Victorian high country near Mt Bogong.
The viewing of Halley’s Comet in 1986 was evidently poor compared with its previous return in 1910, when the Earth actually passed through the tail of the comet on 19 May (inducing some worldwide panic). Apparently the comet that year was a spectacular sight at night, a bright ball of light with a long tail stretching across the sky. I was also interested to read that another comet appeared without warning in our skies that year: the ‘great daylight comet’ was so brilliant that it was briefly visible during the day when at perihelion on 17 January.
So much I gleaned from a 5 minute peruse of Wikipedia. Imagine how much more I would know, were I to spent half a day researching the topic properly.
My sudden interest in comets (in reality, not so sudden) has been sparked by a novel I’m reading, in which the 1910 and 1986 returns of Halley’s Comet play a pivotal role. (Since I’m about to get a little bit snarky, I’m not going to name the book.) While I love the idea of underpinning a story with these momentous celestial events, I am a little (okay, a lot) disappointed by the inclusion of what seem to me significant factual errors in comet-handling.
The main one that bothers me is the apparent implication that the comet returned for a single night in each of those years — at least, this is my inference from the novel. Possibly ‘the night the comet returned’ is supposed to refer to the date of perihelion (the point of closest approach to the sun) but . . . for me that’s a stretch. Or maybe it means the first night it was visible — although that wouldn’t be the night of best viewing as implied. The point is, I shouldn’t have to be wondering about these things while I’m reading a novel.
Overall, whether the comet returned for one night or several weeks has little bearing on the story, and I suppose the majority of readers wouldn’t notice — and if they did, might not let it bother them. Possibly if the comet was referred to only once or twice, it might not have bothered me so much either; but it’s a recurring motif in the novel. As a result, the mishandling has undermined my faith in the author and the story.
It just highlights and underscores how important research is in novel-writing. No matter what the subject, some reader out there will know more than you on a topic (or at least think they do) and be terribly unforgiving when you get things wrong.