In the Days of the Comet (1906) is an H. G. Wells novel in which a comet passes the earth, releasing a gas that permanently makes humans, all of them – in fact all air-breathing animals – pacifists and economic collectivists, allowing for the establishment of a worldwide communist Utopia.
You might note that this novel comes several years after the famous Wells science fiction novels from the late 1890s. Perhaps there is something in my description that explains why this one is not so famous.
Yes, perhaps. Yet it is mostly quite good, as well or better written than the earlier novels, if less inventive. Some of the political writing threatens to turn the book into an Edwardian period piece, but other ideas retain interest.
Most of the book, its actual story, is about a young labor radical, Willie, whose steady girl jilts him for a poshie, not just because the rival is rich but because the narrator’s politics have made him a bit of a pill. Willie is driven into a murderous rage:
“Let me only kill!” I cried. “Let me only kill!” (Bk. I, Ch. 4, Sub 1)
Frankly, he presents himself as a psychopath. Meanwhile, a green, gassy comet is approaching, growing ever more visible and brighter, allowing Wells to play with his paint box:
It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities. Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting – one could read small print in the glare, – and so at Monkshampton I went about through pale, white, unfamiliar streets, whose electric globes had shadows on the path. Lit windows here and there burnt ruddy orange, like holes cut in some dream curtain that hung before a furnace. A policeman with noiseless feet showed me an inn woven of moonshine, a green-faced man opened to us, and there I abode the night. And the next morning it opened with a mighty clatter, and was a dirty little beerhouse that stank of beer, and there was a fat and grimy landlord with red spots upon his neck, and much noisy traffic going by on the cobbles outside. (I.5.1)
The shadows of the streetlamps are a fine touch, one of many in the book.
Meanwhile (another meanwhile), war erupts between Britain and Germany, a war as realistically intricate and pointless as the one that would actually occur eight years later. Wells the pacifist knew his subject. He is particularly good describing a naval action that uncannily prefigures the 1915 Battle of Dogger Banks. But at that time everyone interested in international politics was obsessed with the new-fangled massive battleships, the way we had to be experts in nuclear deterrence strategy to keep up in the 1980s. Wells-the-prophet scores some points.
Willie’s lunatic (cometic?) drive to murder his ex-girlfriend provides plenty of narrative drive as the novel moves along, as does the impending and then active war, as does the comet that’s about to hit the Earth. Maybe that is too much narrative drive. There is a culminating scene where the madman is chasing his ex, shooting at her, while a naval battle is occurring in the background, all in the weird green light of a comet that will save mankind (the story is retrospective, so that we know) any minute now. Pretty wild.
Then comes tomorrow’s subject, world peace, communal dining, and bonfires of books. Utopia.