Monday, 6 March 2017

In the Days of the Comet

H.G. Wells In the Days of the Comet (1906)
I've tended to avoid what I regard as later Wells, generally meaning anything written since The First Men in the Moon. Whilst the quality of his prose may well have remained high, I have the impression he simply ran out of decent ideas, or was at least floundering to some extent; but admittedly this is only a very vague impression based on The Food of the Gods being largely crap and finding myself massively underwhelmed by most of the later short stories that I read, or at least forced myself to finish for the sake of disliking them with authority. I only picked this up because it's so unusual to come across a copy of a novel other than one of the big five, and against all expectations it's not the pile of crap I expected it to be.

That said, it falls off a little in the second half, never quite attaining the escape velocity necessary to achieve the potential promised by the first hundred or so pages, but by that point I didn't even mind, my initial expectations having been set so low. The story is a fairly simple one entailing a passing comet saturating the Earth's atmosphere with a gas which stops everyone acting like wankers. John Brunner pretty much recycled the idea in The Stone That Never Came Down without either the comet or anything you might reasonably describe as an improvement. For Wells' take we experience everything that was wrong with English society at the turn of the century through the eyes of a working-class lad in a coal mining community. His girlfriend has just run off with the son of the landowning lord of the manor, and he's not fucking happy.

In that time of muddle and obscurity people were overtaken by needs and toil and hot passions before they had the chance of even a year or so of clear thinking; they settled down to an intense and strenuous application of some partial but immediate duty, and the growth of thought ceased in them. They set and hardened into narrow ways.

Wells talks about class, privilege, capitalism, industrialisation of labour, and the use of media by which a population is taught to embrace its own servitude and demonise anything which threatens the status quo. But for period details, at times it reads as though it could have been written just months ago, invoking unfortunate parallels which bring serious weight to Wells' argument. It's been a long time since I read any Thomas Hardy, but the first half of the book strongly suggests what little I recall of his passion for social reform.

The comet passes, assuaging the fears of any person suspecting they may have been conned into reading something other than science-fiction, and a green gas envelops the globe, and everyone wakes up with a new awareness of the error of their ways. Unfortunately, as often tends to be the case with utopian novels, it's not very interesting after that - mostly characters having recriminations about how they could ever have been so foolish as to vote for the Annoying Orange, arguments which were better put in the first half of the book for having been expressed in a spirit of anger rather than one of amiable bewilderment. So it ends on a positive note - but for the suggestion that it will take the passing of a narcotic comet to stop us voting Adolf Hitler back into power, over and over, never learning a single fucking thing - but a positive note that just kind of trails off into nothing. This might be a problem but for the sheer power of the first half of the book - not Wells' greatest novel, but his greatest first half of a novel, I'd say.

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