In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1905)
From all of H.G. Wells’ works, I picked one that I was completely and totally unfamiliar with, and I deliberately picked one in the heart of the time frame I most associate with his writing, the early 1900s, even though I’m well aware that he continued writing fiction into the early 1940s.
The opening pages of the book make me wonder if until sometime in the early 20th century it was only possible to start a novel by putting your tale into the story-within-a-story framework. Honestly, it’s beginning to be a bit of an eye roll. At least this time it was short.
The real story starts as a memoir, a man of 72 writing about the urge to write about his life and how it seems so different since the Great Change. I’m not terribly fond of this structure, either, as it robs any sense of tension and immediacy from the story, but if the memoir aspect goes away quickly, I can usually set it aside. And Mr. Wells was a good writer. This does pass as we slide into the story, although there are frequent hints and moments throughout the book that jar us back to the realization that we’re supposed to be reading a memoir.
Of interest is that the narrator doesn’t seem to think a great deal of religion and that’s apparent early on. He notes having doubts and we get a nice, if brief, discussion of him walking away from religion, if not quite from god. In 1905. (A dozen years later, Mr. Wells would write far more extensively about his own religious views not being attached to Christianity or drawing upon any traditional religion.) But religion isn’t the early focus of the book, more of a side bar.
The first quarter of the story is far more a commentary on turn of the (20th) century capitalism and its abuses. There’s a great deal of setup of the normal situation, the comet an occasionally mentioned background item that we know is going to be important, but isn’t yet. And normal is a little on the crappy side for the narrator. He works at a miserable dead end job, until he stupidly quits, screws up what could have been a healthy romantic relationship, is snarky at his mother, and tries to alienate the man who is probably his only friend. All the while, the rich capitalists are putting half the population into similarly crappy life situations and working hard to isolate themselves from it.
In fact, rather more than the first quarter. The comet continues to grow and get more noticeable to the narrator, but until it actually hits the planet, it doesn’t really seem to have any effect on day to day life. People are worried, but it’s supposed to be just a few hundred tonnes of dust and gas, so we’ll pretend it’s not there and enjoy our something less than pleasant life, unemployed and a budding socialist, in late industrial revolution Swathinglea (a mythical near-suburb of London).
I suppose that’s not entirely fair. The narrator does drop hints and odd bombs throughout this part of the text about how things are different these days, so long after the Great Change. We don’t treat mothers like that anymore. People actually think about what they’re doing. We run the world properly these days. Oh, you think that was bad, let me tell you about war.
I’m paraphrasing, but yes, really.
Actually, on the subject of war, Mr. Wells does have the narrator give us a short treatise on just how stupid and wasteful it is, neatly predicting the horror of World War I. But then he goes on to try showing us how it used to be different in pre-modern days when one tribe/nation went out to test itself against its neighbours. Still a very 19th century viewpoint to my reading. While I can certainly respect individuals stepping up to serve their nations, I have a hard time respecting the nations who deliberately make that service necessary by initiating aggression against other nations.
But I’m getting side tracked. Surprise.
It’s also interesting to contrast this narrator’s views of the press and newspapers with that of A Connecticut Yankee. While the press was high on the list of important things in that book, in this one the narrator lays the responsibility, as a big, dirty industry filled with and run by eager, unintelligent young men, for fanning the flames of nationalism, pride, and war.
There are actually a lot of interesting thoughts in this book on religion, nationalism, human nature, and society. But it also needs to be a story, not just a collection of ideas. And it’s almost not. The protagonist (if you can call him that) spends so much time being a miserable jerk that he more or less drives his girlfriend away and into a relationship with a man who is apparently in all ways, his superior. So, after a feeble attempt at getting her back, instead he sets off to murder them. This is the story for the first many, many pages.
But, to be honest, the thing that really drove me nuts about this story, though, is that we don’t actually have anything speculative beyond the comet’s existence until we’re over half way through the book. What we’ve got is the story of a downtrodden young man, too low in the hierarchy of society, miserable with his life and having lost his girlfriend to someone better off. It’s a slight descent into madness but we’re stopped short of him catching up with the happy couple and killing them by what may or may not be the comet’s impact or a chain reaction caused by the fighting of great ironclads in the nearby ocean. (It’s the comet, but that’s not clear right away.) He trips over his own feet and knocks himself cold. Or maybe that’s the comet, too (it is, but also not clear until later).
And then he wakes up with new eyes in a new world. Except neither are new, just his perception of things has changed. The Great Change, promised in the first paragraphs of the book, had finally come.
The protagonist, and everyone else, wakes up to how poorly we’ve been running and organizing things for all of human history. What follows for most of the remainder of the book is a long series of examples of how the world, in small and large ways, would be so much better if we considered other people before our own selfishness and thought about things a little more before acting on that selfishness.
For a resolution to the love triangle, the protagonist sits down with his dream girl and his rival and they talk their way around the ideas of monogamy, loving one person, and perhaps the new world would let people live as they chose, but they weren’t quite there yet, globally or personally. Still, times might, and would change.
Overall rating: 2 stars. Translation: it was easy to read and had lots of neat thoughts in it, but as a story, it failed miserably for me. Your mileage may vary, but I wish I’d picked another of Mr. Wells’ books for this journey.by