Thursday, August 13, 2015

Base immediacies fouled the truth - Wells's comet-induced Year Zero - books, countless books, too

The story of In the Days of the Comet – the one where the maddened socialist tries to murder his girlfriend under the green glow of a comet – is told in retrospect by the murderer.  Or not told, but written in his old age, because, he says, he had always wanted to write a book.  He frequently addresses young readers, suggesting or insisting that they will not understand what he has written about politics, violence, poverty, religion, privacy, and so on, all of which has been eliminated.

Now you must understand that the world of thought in those days was in the strangest condition, it was choked with obsolete inadequate formula, it was tortuous to a maze-like degree with secondary contrivances and adaptations, suppressions, conventions, and subterfuges.  Base immediacies fouled the truth on every man’s lips.  (I.1.2)

Wells does not cheat.  He spends the last third of the novel describing the creation of the world-wide Utopia, all caused by the mysterious gases of the comet that has hit or rather enveloped the Earth.  Human nature is instantly changed, making all – all – people pacifists and collectivists.  It is the end of ownership, war, crime, and churches.  Maybe the worst part of this section is an argument about free love, essentially, that strains against but is defeated by Edwardian sensibilities.  By which I mean, Wells is either craven or confused on this point, or wants me to think that he is.

Otherwise, he is bold.  Wells makes the comet a Year Zero, after which all is new.  Humankind spends its first two years tearing down almost every city and building on the planet and replacing them with cities of reason.

Most of our public buildings we destroyed and burnt as we reshaped our plan of habitation, our theater sheds, our banks, and inconvenient business warrens, our factories (these in the first year of all), and all the “unmeaning repetition” of silly little sham Gothic  churches and meeting-houses, mean looking shells of stone and mortar without love, invention, or any beauty at all in them, that men had thrust into the face of their sweated God, even as they thrust cheap food into the mouths of their sweated workers; all these we also swept away in the course of that first decade.  (II.3.1)

But that is not all.  Into the bonfires go “great oil paintings, done to please the half-educated middle-class,” “a gross multitude of silly statuettes and decorative crockery, and hangings, and embroideries, and bad music, and musical instruments,” and “books, countless books, too”:

And it seemed to me that when we gathered those books and papers together, we gathered together something more than print and paper, we gathered warped and crippled ideas and contagious base suggestions, the formulae of dull tolerances and stupid impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuities of sluggish habits of thinking and timid and indolent evasions.  There was more than a touch of malignant satisfaction for me in helping gather it all together.

By this point if not before a horrified reader may either deem Wells insane or realize that In the Days of the Comet is a Lucianic satire, a book that deliberately undermines its own arguments.  It is, in the great tradition of literary Utopias, sneakily anti-Utopian.  The central premise of the novel is that a workable pacifist socialism is only possible with a massive, universal change in human nature as caused by, for example, a magic comet.  This was not an argument I expected from H. G. Wells.  He is subtle, or devilish.

He also misses, or hides, the best part of his own invention.  The narrator wonders about the strange chance that brought green, gassy salvation to his planet, but of course the atmosphere-altering comet did not collide with the Earth by chance.  It was a weapon.  It was obviously a weapon, but one so fiendish that it not only disarms its victims but removes their ability to understand that it was a weapon.  As the novel ends, unknown to the rabbit-like humans, their alien enslavers draw near.


  1. This is just so wild. I have been imagining Chernyshevsky on acid since reading yesterday's post. I read Wells as a kid (a couple of novels, anyway) so I figured I didn't need to read him as an adult. This sounds almost irresistible, though. I don't know how strong that "almost" is.

  2. The novel surely was not whatever I though it was going to be.

    The previous year Wells had written a novel that must be related, The Modern Utopia. I guess I had better find out what is in it. Maybe in Comet he is parodying his previous novel or something like that.

  3. "Human nature is instantly changed, making all – all – people pacifists and collectivists."
    ...but the nature of other animals isn't?

  4. The alien invasion plot sounds last-minute and cowardly, as if Wells was afraid to leave his reader inside the Utopia once he got there. I make this declaration as someone who has not read the book, so I feel I'm on pretty firm ground here.

  5. The alien invasion plot is my own invention, based entirely on a passage where the narrator wonders about the great luck that this particular magic comet struck the earth, solving all problems for all time. "You fool," I sputter, "you fool, can't you see what is happening!"

    The animals, though, are in the novel. Every air-breathing animal is affected by the comet. Underwater animals are not affected, including men in submarines (until exposed to the new air). The narrator is explicit that carnivores have lost their aggression. He does not say what then happens to them. It is passages like that that make me have great doubts about the narrator. Or about Wells - but if the argument is about actual socialist reform and disarmament, why on earth include the foxes? So he is playing some other game, or enjoying some other joke.

    1. I should have learned after your Little Nell variations. But I am truly disappointed that you made up the aliens.

    2. Well, they could be robots, maybe. Humans, but time travelers.

      The real question is, what happens when the comet hits that undoes the effects of the first comet.

  6. I'm trying to read and not read these posts at the same time because I discovered I have this in a volume (alongside "Mr. Britling Sees It Through") and from what I *have* seen of these posts it sounds like a must. I like this kind of sci fi - "The Hopkins Manuscript" by R.C. Sherriff where the moon is heading for the earth is great!


  7. Not reading me is always a good idea, and in this case a better idea. Yes, if you can stand the Utopianizing, this book will be rewarding. I wonder why it was paired with Mr. Britling.

    I had never heard of Sherriff. His novel is quite clearly a descendant of Wells.

  8. It would seem like aliens have some interest in How To Serve Man (which is supposed to include great recipes, btw).

  9. I think my pulp sequel would have the antidote comet hit just before the invaders arrive, so the humans are unarmed and confused but the aliens think the humans are still in their Utopianized state.