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.
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