Eli Bishop's Reviews > In the Days of the Comet

In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
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Jul 22, 2010

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bookshelves: fiction-sff
Read in January, 2010

What an odd little book. I was surprised to see that Wells wrote this later than all his other famous, hyper-influential SF novels, because it reads more like an early failed experiment, but it sure is interesting.

The first section, a realistic portrait of a not very interesting Victorian young man, is quite a slog; you can tell that this novel was not serialized, because most readers would've given up after several chapters about his career decisions and romantic disappointments, wondering when he'd get to the damn comet.

Then [spoiler:] there's a comet, and everyone is scared, but instead of destroying the world, it saves it-- since as luck would have it, the comet is basically made out of magic Prozac. And then the rest of the book is a utopia, but since it's a new one rather than an established one, everyone's trying to adjust to no longer being screwed up and neurotic.

Unlike a lot of idea-based utopian narratives, Wells pays attention to what it might feel like, personally, to be cured of anxiety-- how promising yet totally weird it would be-- and sometimes he gets it across well, as early on when a guy accidentally breaks his ankle and notices that although it hurts and all, he's not freaking out, it's just one of those things that happens. And the earlier realistic slog pays off somewhat as the narrator realizes how all the vague angst he'd been going on about was just silly and unnecessary, but he still feels duty-bound to keep worrying about it, even though he's now physically unable to worry; he keeps trying to stay jealous of his ex-girlfriend and her new guy, even as she's trying to tell him that everything's cool because now they can all be lovers. That stuff rang true to me; Wells understood that when people have spent their whole lives learning how to be serious and unhappy, they're not going to want all that effort to have been wasted.

On the other hand, it also has one of the weirdest bits of oblivious racism I've ever seen. There's a post-comet scene where some businessmen and politicians are testifying ruefully about what jerks they used to be, and one of them is a Jewish banker... not just any Jewish banker, but the Jewish banker, the creepy greedy smelly sneaky one of anti-semitic legend. But now, like everyone else, he's a decent guy; and he tells his own story, which is basically: "Wow, we Jews sure were greedy and awful! But it was just because of our mental hangups about being so weird and inferior! Now, thanks to the comet, we can all just get along." It's particularly bizarre because Wells obviously thought of this as an enlightened view-- i.e. they're not genetically bad, they're just all twisted and evil for psychological/cultural reasons. And yet, ew.

It's no mystery why the book isn't well known: it basically has no plot, and in the end it's a big "wouldn't it be nice if" relying on a deus ex machina. (And although it's always appealing to think that we could be awesome if we just weren't being held back by some kind of psychic debris-- Gurdjieff, Colin Wilson, and L. Ron Hubbard come to mind-- Wells refuses to give us any superpowers as a result of this, other than happiness, so SF readers may feel cheated.) But because it never caught on like his other books (many of which created whole subgenres), I found it kind of fresh and surprising despite the clunky aspects.

Oddly, the closest connection I can think of in later SF is in the work of Samuel Delany, who had two very different takes on parts of the premise: Triton, where human nature hasn't changed but there's still a (sort of) utopia where a neurotic guy has trouble adjusting, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, where you can get a treatment to make you incapable of worrying about anything but then you immediately get sold into slavery.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by MariNaomi (new)

MariNaomi So funny! Every time you wrote "SF" I read "San Franciscan." I think I like the review more than I'd like the book. I mean, I like the idea of the book, but I don't have the patience to slog through a slow-moving SF book.

Ubik Your review is SO spot-on! I just finished this and was like....this is some guy's diary....that just kinda ends with some random dude (???) who asks him some questions and....thats it. I would call this a Polyamory Manifesto if anything LOL.

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