Days of the Comet

A mysterious green comet from the ancient depths of the dark looms in the sky. It recalls H G Wells, In the Days of Comet in which a green comet looms over the Earth, growing larger week by week.

The book is not one of Wells’s classics and does not deserve to be, and resolves into an attempt to push the author’s naïve social ideas, but one thing leaps from the pages:  by thunder, the man can write.

The comet in the skies as I write this is no monster and for most of us in this land it passes invisible above the cloudy night, but imagine a comet growing vast until it dominates the sky; an ancient superstition marking of unknowable portents in the heavens.

In the Days of the Comet is not science fiction, not in Book I at least, but Wells did not always write science fiction. It marks the point where he stopped writing pure adventure and started writing his social and political ideas. The ultimate argument is fallacious, but casting the whole point of the work aside, it displays mastery in writing.

The book is contemporary to the year it was written. It opens in the Edwardian world of the Potteries towns, a smoke-reeked industrial blot of hard graft and poverty and riches, surrounding the main character, a young man with all the ungoverned passions of his age, with a foot in the town and a foot in the country estate where his family once served. It is a device to show both sides of a social divide (ignoring the innumerable gradations in between, which would spoil the argument of the story). It is a story not so much of Edwardian strife as of the inner workings of a young man’s mind. It is a mind of frustration, impatience, rage and ungoverned passion. In short, it is a brilliant portrayal of the universal young man at the door of adulthood.

Wells sets out explicitly to talk of the division between rich and poor, or with more insight, between those who are secure and those unsecure. The mine owner works hard but need not – he and his family are secure. The labourer’s widow though may not know that she will still be eating in a week’s time. All the while, the comet grows larger in the sky.

The main driver of rage in the young man, William, is not wealth or poverty though; it is a woman, of course. More drive comes from the pants than the purse: never mind the squabbles over lost shillings and impossible employers: the loss of Nettie is the end of all hope, or the beginning of murder. He buys a gun and it is ever present, with a gravitational effect all of its own.

There is a great deal of difference between a teenage crush on a girl, and the realities of her when she blooms into a woman, and young men do not mature as young women do. The change is enchanting, terrifying, alluring, threatening. The desire for possession confused with love can become a form of madness.  This is something Wells portrays with excruciating accuracy. Whether he means to or not, I cannot tell, but it is triumph of his art.

The enemy is identified, the privileged Verrall who has won Nettie’s heart: his class makes him Wells’s enemy, which is projected upon tormented William, but there would be no need for politics, when envy and hatred are universal.  William tracks Nettie and Verrall to the farthermost edge  of the land where they have eloped, in one of those an anonymous beach resorts that were typical of the age, with villas made from old railway coaches. Murder is immediately to hand, the gun in his hand…

Then the comet strikes, and the world is transformed, in a moment, if not quite in the twinkling of an eye at the last trump, as the green miasma spreads over all the world and every living thing across the world falls into sleep.

Those who wake are transformed, and we are into Book II. The science-fiction explanation essayed by Wells is that the comet changes all the nitrogen in the air into a breathable gas so that the brains of everyone work more efficiently and in that state all the worries and concerns of the past life are seen as petty and one gets the impression that the only emotions left are those of regret for past foolishness. (What a dull place it sounds.)

All thoughts of murder are forgotten; the gun drops from the hand.  The war on the sea ceases.

The author assumes that as soon as we all become more intelligent, we will all at once accept the author’s own political ideas as correct. Wells is no different from all species of arrogant political activist these days. The difference is that, over a hundred years on, we have seen what happens when those ideas are put into effect, and we have have mourned over the wastelands they create and the mass graves they fill.

I must have quoted G K Chesterton on H G Wells before “Mr Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message”. Book II and Book III of this work, trundling through his dull vision for the future, demonstrate that and can be discarded as literature. For Book I though, a perfect picture of tormented youth, Wells earns all the plaudits he has received: by thunder, the man can write.

See also



It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness.

A hundred years ago Ulysses was published, to outrage, scorn and delight, the first of the modern novels, tumbling words like Miss Douce’s bronze tresses or the sheets of Molly’s fearinducing bed, unrelenting, the jumbled, selftormeneted thoughts rushing the head of Leopold Bloom in a jumbled humbled, selftormented Dublin on the crowded day of 16 June 1904. To describe it is impossible. It was written for the writer, and knowing it would wreak revenge upon critics, critics who devour with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. tasked with unjumbling an unfathomable Odyssey of the mind.

The realisation comes upon the reader if he dare look up of the principal theme being the longing of men for supple flesh and unreachableness and disappointed execution, the madnessinducingness, unpossessableness, as in a summer’s day the women in all the city streets and bars and strands, goods on display unpurchaseable except at a deadly price, and reaction of the longing man as if to look around on this long train commute I were to find my eyes unwilling drawn amongst the lessly clad maids of the carriage, finding in each the rose, each of a name but unnameable (Molly singing the Rose of Castile, how many were touched by those coral lips?) in feminine carriage swaying in a jingling, sweating carriage, rows of cast steel, thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate, begging she of the Spanishy eyes Sonnez la cloche! (so formal), Sonnez la cloche, La clo, son..

In a tableau pass along the streets of a timeless June 1904, streets soon to be renamed by revolutionaries but preserved in those pages, of shopmen, schoolmen, writers, drinkers, ladies, doxies, haughty priests of the leftfoot and solemn ministers of the right, and the Lord Lieutenantgeneral passing by, the hoofirons, steelyringing, O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking, jingle jingle jaunted jingling, and Bloom between belonging to none, condemned to walk the Earth forever, the wandering salesman.

To read it to be feels you are being hit by a train; a train of thought.  Should I endeavour? Yes I said, yes I will Yes.


Fantasy islands

Who would not want to sail a ship into the heavens and watch a war between the creatures of the Moon and the Sun, to find and conquer a world hidden within a whale and sail behind a curtain to talk with heroes of old in their rest?  The world is too narrow for all the stories our imaginations want to tell.

Dreams take us into impossible places (although for me, my tutored mind intervenes in the dream and insists on putting it into a logical narrative).

Whenever I see a sign labelling “Part time traffic lights” my fancies wander to where the lights might go on their time off. I always imagined they would sit around somewhere, perhaps in company with occasional tables. Lucian thought the same in the Second Century AD, giving us his City of Lamps, which he visited according to his ‘True Story’ while sailing the cosmos. It is a pretty invention that has charmed may writers since – including Margaret Cavendish, a friend and scholar of Hobbes.

Fantasy works are usually pulp nonsense to embarrass a bookshelf, but not all: the Odyssey is a fantasy book, and it is a foundation work of European culture. Science fiction is a rich branch of fantasy, rooted in Homer’s pen.  If it is to become literature, the author must have the audacity to write without apology and create a world which is for a moment believable and desirable.

Lucian’s humour came from the familiarity of the genre he spoofed, and his own inventiveness. Romans would read books of distant travels and wanted to believe there really were men with heads in their chests or with wings, and lands where centaurs roamed, and if the reality is too dull, why not be released from the need to pretend it is true and have an open fantasy? Homer was too serious, as if he wanted to be believed.

Lucian is to Homer as Spaceballs is to Star Wars; a loving tribute to the work it played upon. The morality of the Ancient Greeks was different from ours, but surely Homer saw a problem with Odysseus’s behaviour with certain nymphs and demi-(clad)-goddesses on those fantasy islands? It took Lucian though to portray Odysseus in his eternal rest in the Isle of the Blessed creeping away from Penelope at night to slip Lucian a love-note to take to Calypso.

The Isle of the Blessed episode is full of crackers, showing the heroes of ancient times as just as flawed and more so than mortal men – they need a law court for when Helen’s husbands argue over whose wife she is for eternity, and when Alexander and Hannibal argue about who was greatest general. The Platonists, we are told, are not on the island, as they are still trying to devise their own state.  Here too Lucian meets Homer and badgers him with all those questions that scholars had been debating about him – which shows that lit crit is as ancient as literature itself, and as tedious then as now.

That city inhabited by lamps, which live in fear of being extinguished if they do not do their duty, comes from the heart of a householder fed up with guttering oil lamps. (In the City of Lamps Lucian encounters his own house lamp and discusses with it matters at home – he says nothing about an occasional table.)

The squabbling worlds on the planets and the zodiac, the lost islands of the sea, the kingdom in a whale’s belly and the giants rowing islands to hunt it, are exercises in audacity just the right side of silliness.

I was musing on that here recently about ancient works that have been called ‘Sci-Fi’ which are not really, but which are fantasy as grown-up literature. Defining ‘science fiction’ is a whole topic on its own, and as a good Hobbesian I must feel the necessity to define it:

For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lyes the foundation of their errours.

Not now though. I just wish to appreciate that works of fantasy can be literature, even if the majority of them have given the genre a bad name. How they become literature is another question.  It is not by modelling a tale on the fancies of dreams as they are personal and dependent on the day’s experience or internal distempers as Hobbes explains:

divers distempers must needs cause different Dreams. And hence it is, that lying cold breedeth Dreams of Feare, and raiseth the thought and Image of some fearfull object (the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the Brain being reciprocall)

To be any good, a story must speak to a wide audience who are not all in on the internal workings of the writer’s own brain. I would go further: a really good book should work even if you strip the fantasy element out, and leave just the personalities and their deeds. The Romans called Homer’s hero Ulysses, and built more robust stories around him.  Following their lead, if you take the wanderings of Ulysses out of the fantasy islands and the mythical age and place him in, say, Dublin in 1904, it will work very well indeed.

See also




Matt Hancock book exclusive

Matt Hancock’s How I Won the COVID War, out soon: a thrilling read. Page after page of revelations: ‘If I were to get on top of this one, I’d have to work fast. I took lessons from Neil Ferguson’.

‘I was going to get down to it – if it took all-night sessions with staff, I was up for it.’ ‘It was a fearsome projection: I was facing a massive hump in the summer.’

‘It was vital that people stay at home unless needed: even my wife could no longer join me at the office in the evening, and I had police posted just in case.’

‘This is an international problem – I was discussing Uganda into the small hours. How I kept it up, I’ll never know.’

The book is not out for a few months, but the extracts are revealing. Getting through on tiny scraps of data, bearing a hunch and carrying it through, following tiny clues, hacking phones, bribing publishers and getting the ghost-writer drunk  – that’s how exclusives are made. What I found was less exciting than I thought: here was Matt, plain Matt Hancock, just as pointless and self-absorbed as he always seemed. If you want drama and fantasy, you have what he thought of himself.

I always side with the Morlocks

In The Time Machine, H G Wells drops his character, the Time Traveller, into a very different world, in the year 802,701.

If you have not read the book, it imagines humanity that is no longer human. Some great, decayed buildings still stand but mankind which built them has gone. There is a great sphinx monument, and across the landscape there are well-heads (or so they seem) but the human race as we know it is no more. At a past age it had bifurcated into two species: surface-dwelling eloi and subterranean morlocks.

It s a well-crafted book, written before Wells ‘sold his birthright for a pot of message’, so it need not contain a political or social point – just the author’s brilliant imagination giving a radical possibility for the future.

The Time Traveller is charmed by the eloi and repelled by the morlocks. The eloi amongst whom he finds himself, in their bright, carefree, arcadian lifestyle, gathering flowers, eating the fruit of untended trees and doing no manner of work, with no machines or science or writing, childlike in attitude and stature, seem to live out the dreamed ideal of mankind. The morlocks dwell in tunnels beneath the ground, where there are machines beating unseen in the dark. They are white-skinned and pink-eyed, and malevolent. They emerge at night from the sphinx and the wells and hunt for their meat – the eloi. The eloi fear the dark.

The BBC has (or had) a weird and worrying children’s television programme, called ‘Waybuloo’ (which was apparently Buddhist propaganda, not that the Beeb ever noticed) portraying childlike creatures living such an idyllic life with no cares and no work, living on wild fruit. I saw it, and knew instinctively that someone has to be doing all the work that they could live, and I could hear in my mind the thumping of the machines in a deep, unseen cave and the morlocks waiting the harvest the Piplings they had cultivated above. Don’t tell the children.

I still prefer the Morlocks. The Eloi are clothed and fed by another’s work and sustained just as cattle in the field. They have lost all the attributes of humanity. They have a simple language, but little reason for it. They know no past nor future and do not even look after each other – Weena was left to drown in the stream without a thought. The morlocks however take a hand in their own preservation and prosperity. They work, they have machines. They are curious, carrying off the time machine to study it. They farm the eloi as a food source, and so the eloi depend on the morlocks, though little realising this. The morlocks impliedly built the sphinx so that all who see it know who is superior. The eloi neither build nor preserve anything. The eloi are a disgrace to their distant ancestry: they are mere animals. The morlocks alone continue the human story.

Wells, through the voice of his Time Traveller, supposes that the morlocks were descended from the working men forced underground to toil, while the eloi came from the masters in their airy villas who banished them, only to lose their vitality through indolence. Any division like that would be self-correcting in our world, as the vigorous class became masters over the useless. The world of 802,701 imagined by Wells had reached not a new equilibrium but a position between two separated species that had to be maintained by the constant work of the morlocks.

It is possible to read too much into The Time Machine by reference to the radical political ideas later espoused by Wells. His visit to Bolshevik Russia in 1920 may have been a turning point for him, seeing it as a science fiction writer might, for the imaginary being turned into a reality, and ignoring inconvenient subplots like the induced mass poverty and starvation, repression and massacres. During the Great War he had come to express radical ideas, spurred by a hatred of the Hun and their industrial violence, but the development of his political ideas through fiction can be traced back earlier. The War in the Air (1907) is more soundly Hobbesian in its concept of how the world would turn out if civilisation were to smash itself. The Time Machine (1895) looks far further forward, deeper into humanity and sub-humanity. Maybe this is what pushed him over the edge.

The world portrayed in the book is not really about the future: it is more personal and internal. Victorian philosophers used to talk of a good and an evil side to each of us (as expressed in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that is another article): the eloi and the morlocks represent those sides. Perhaps instead though they represent on one side the child’s happy dream and on the other are the monsters imagined in the dark. In waking, it may contrast the idyll of childhood summers against the toil of adulthood; or the ideal we dream of and the reality in which we find ourselves. The eloi are compared with children, in case we had not picked the clues up.

There is something worrying there too. The only named character of the future age is Weena. In the classic film adaptation she is portrayed as a lover. In the book her position is ambiguous: she is more like a clingy child, but the Time Traveller is not unreciprocating as he ‘returned to the welcome and the caresses of little Weena’. Not too childlike, I hope. (There are men who seek utterly limp and submissive women, but such men deserve no respect, and I pity the women concerned.) I will be generous and assume that in this case the man finding himself the only human being in the world needs some innocent, reassuring company.

He meets the morlocks in the tunnels beneath a well. In the dark there are just looming shapes, a mass of figures, the meat on a table, the huge machines of unknown function. Fingers paw at him, exploring, then seizing him and he wrenches himself away. Is it an attack or a desire to know more of this unknown being who has stepped amongst them, just as they wanted to understand the machine? We cannot know.

The night will come though, and it does, even as he and Weena are far from the communal hall of home, and the morlocks emerge. It is perhaps the first time we see them with characters of their own. They are still for the Time Traveller an anonymous swarm to be rendered no pity even as they scream in terror of the approaching fire. he does not see them as being closer to him than is the eloi girl in his arms, or maybe he does but does not want to know himself. He is as far as he can be from the comforts of that Victorian withdrawing room from which he stepped, but it has not left him. The eloi are comforting; the morlocks a deadly threat, but back in London men in the shadows are no less a threat.

In the book, the morlocks are observed as ugly, evil monsters, without any redeeming feature, and the eloi are beautiful perfection. However they morlocks cannot be all evil any more than people are. They must co operate and have a society in order to build and to thrive on limited resources.

All this analysis can be pushed too far. I might read the book for my own reading of it, or as the average reader (if there is such a thing), or the way Wells intended. As you wish.

What I take from it, which Wells did not intend, is that of the two species descended from mankind, the Eloi are lovely but a dead-end, unable to develop or even to survive on their own. The Morlocks look after themselves and each other, they plan ahead, they build, they are curious and accordingly they can develop and adapt. The future is theirs. I must always side with the Morlocks.

See also