In the early pages of Apollo’s Fire, Michael Sims quotes Christopher Morley’s description of a day as “an artistic whole; it comes out of nothing and goes back to nothing, like a perfect story.” As Sims points out, writers from Thornton Wilder to James Joyce have appropriated the structure of a single day to frame their stories. Sims, a writer with a particular gift for explaining the natural world, has opted to cut out the middleman and tell the story of the day itself. He treats it as a drama with a chief protagonist, the sun. Apollo’s Fire is the saga of our local star, from its spectacular entrance at dawn to its nightly offstage role illuminating the moon. The book is also the story of humanity’s relationship to the sun, of how and why it dominates our physical and imaginative lives.
In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god who drives the chariot of the sun across the sky each day, faithfully maintaining the cycle of light and darkness on which life depends. That divine image, says Sims, is typical of the way humans have acknowledged solar primacy. We have always worshipped the sun, instinctively recognizing its power, and we sought to understand it long before we knew the mechanics of Earth’s place in its orbit. In Apollo’s Fire, Sims brings together a wealth of lore about the movement of the heavens—from the sun-stealing Raven of the Kwakiutl people to the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours—with lively accounts of the science that actually explains them. He frames this collage of fact and fable with a wry retelling of the myth of Apollo’s son Phaethon, who tried and failed to drive his father’s chariot.
Sims takes on the eternal questions of children: Why is the sky blue? Why does the wind blow? What causes sun dogs and brilliant sunsets? He explains concepts ranging from Brownian movement to circadian rhythms, and delves into the history of astronomy and geography. There’s an especially fascinating account of the long quest to explain why the night sky is dark in spite of being populated with countless stars, a search that indirectly led to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
Readers familiar with Sims’ earlier book on the culture and science of the human body, Adam’s Navel (2003), know that he is above all a great synthesizer of information. His range of curiosity is enormous, and he seems to gather tidbits from every aspect of science and culture. This approach could easily create an unreadable hodgepodge of trivia, but Sims has the gift of weaving it all into a coherent whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, much as a nesting bird builds a perfect nursery out of twigs and bits of fluff. He moves effortlessly from the concrete to the abstract, as in his discussion of our eternal fascination with things falling from the sky:
“Vengefully the heavens fling lightning to earth, demolishing trees and starting fires and occasionally stealing the life of a human being. Even before we faced acid rain and disintegrating artificial satellites, we knew that the sky may rain treasures or plagues. Sky Woman, in an Abenaki creation myth, falls to earth through a hole in the sky caused by the uprooting of a celestial tree. Indeed, our imaginative response to gravity’s pull has turned falling itself into a metaphor. We say that civilizations rise and fall and we imagine a golden age before the Fall of Man. Lucifer is thrown out of the celestial realm and plummets to the mundane as surely as Elijah rises heavenward.”
A book like Apollo’s Fire presents an almost overwhelming challenge of narrative balance, even for a writer with Sims’ skill at successfully marrying disparate threads of knowledge. The shape of the narrative comes ready-made with the stages of the day, but the conceptual content is vast, and it would be difficult for any writer to judge just how long to spend with each topic. Some readers will come away wishing for more science; some may feel that Sims gives too quick a swipe at his discussions of art and mythology. It’s unlikely anyone would want less of any of the fascinating elements of this book, which is perhaps the best a reader can hope for from a project aimed at a general audience.
We pay an enormous price for the ease and comfort of modern urban life. They have cost us, among other things, much of our connection to the earth’s daily dance with the sun. Big chunks of the sky are obscured by manmade structures. Ubiquitous artificial light means that night has almost ceased to exist. It’s a shame that we need a literary reminder of the complex beauty of an earthly day, but it’s hard to imagine any book doing that task better, or more enjoyably, than Apollo’s Fire. “At the end of a day,” writes Sims, “I sleep best after I have walked or at least stepped outdoors and looked up at the sky. Even an upward glance out the window reassures me that the calamities and scurry of normal urban life in the new millennium still take place under the same vault of stars that watched the painters emerge from the cave at Lascaux.” His book offers readers a taste of that same comfort, humility and wonder.
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