book-reviews

In the Days of the Comet

by H.G Wells

Rating: ★★★

This is perhaps the least enjoyable of all the Wells novels I've read so far. That's probably at least partially because the book portrays an image of humanity which I just don't buy, but there are other factors involved, as I'll detail.

The book, played out as a memoir being read by an unidentified reader moments after its completion, centers on the life of a central protagonist, Willie, and the conditions of his life 'before the Change', specifically focusing on his romantic affairs with a young woman, Nettie. These events are overshadowed by the appearance of a strange comet in the sky, and the dawn of a war with Germany. When the comet strikes earth, the air is changed, and the temperament of mankind alters with it, ushering in a new age of cooperation and common concern, which leads to the peaceful atmosphere which the narrator has made clear he enjoys.

The longest part of the book is the buildup to the comet's arrival, with Willie plotting the murder of Nettie and the man which stole her from him. This is something of a problem from my perspective, because nothing of very much interest happens in that section. Young Willie is not particularly relatable, as his older self agrees in the narration, and the affair with Nettie is a rather tedious business. Willie subscribes to a rather irate form of class-conscious socialism which, despite the setting offering grounds for sympathy, fails to persuade me due in part to Willie's attitude (the other part being my own leanings, I admit).

The narrator takes every opportunity to relate to the reader how dingy and horrid the world was 'before the Change', which, despite becoming a bit predictable, leads to some interesting comparisons. Despite the lack of the sudden air-clearing Change, much of what Wells describes is no longer the case in England. Living conditions are closer to those alluded to in the post-Change world than the pre-Change world, land ownership is no longer the hot topic, and class tensions are remarkably eased. It gives a person a real sense of the utopia that is modern life (here). Yet also much of what Wells describes in the post-Change world does not exist. Whether that means he was right and those changes are coming, or he was wrong, is up to your own interpretation. Personally, I think at least some of those changes are coming, and at least some of them will never arrive.

Wells is a good writer, and even from my position of disinterest I noticed how the tension grew as the comet grew nearer. It makes it so much more anticlimactic, then, that the arrival of the comet is followed by the irritatingly limp account that follows. Everyone is all but picking daisies and singing campfire songs as they lay down their guns, establish a World State, turn mansions into nursing homes and burn everything that reminds them of the old world, including all those old books full of confused and horrible things. It's almost literally the dream of socialists like Willie - everyone 'wakes up' and has a common purpose. It was so sweet and saccharine that I was half-expecting to find the comet to be the precursor to an alien invasion.

The only tension that remains in this second half of the book regards Willie's love interest. It seems the eminent reasonableness brought by the comet finds monogamy a tough nut to crack. Nettie suggests a menage a trois between her, Willie and the lover that stole her from him, but Willie refuses it, and it's only after he falls in with the nurse caring for his mother that the two couples 'hook up' - something which Wells seems reluctant to praise very much openly, and which the 'reader' of the memoirs finds distasteful.

The book seems to rest its appeal on you agreeing that the world is bad (and yes, Willie's world isn't nice, but that's no longer where I live) and sympathising with the idea that if everyone was just awake then everything could be done better (well, maybe, but what Wells describes doesn't appeal as to me that much better). As an inspirational text for a budding socialist, this might do well, but for a cynical conservative type like myself it's considerably off the mark, and aside from the cultural comparisons there's not much to draw me back into it. Apply to yourself as appropriate.