The Works of H. G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H. G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet

Alexander Wallace is exalted!
Sometimes we wish that somebody or something could appear in this miserable world and put an end to all our miseries. Sometimes that comes in terms of an ironic (I would hope) wish for annihilation; recall the mock campaign posters for ‘Giant Meteor 2020,’ with the slogan ‘just end it all.’ But sometimes we wish for something more positive, more life-affirming, more joyous, and less openly misanthropic.

Such is H. G. Wells’ 1906 novel In the Days of the Comet. The background of the plot concerns the appearance of a comet that appears in the skies over Earth and slowly but surely imbues our planet in a green gas that causes us to behave more amicably towards our neighbors. It’s a rather obvious contrivance, one more jarring than the more subtle ones of his other books.
In the Days of the Comet is a very angry book. Wells spends large portions dedicated to slamming social ills of his day, many of which are still disturbingly relevant over a hundred years after the book’s publication. Wells was a socialist, and his main character and narrator William Leadford is radicalized while he is unemployed and unable to find another job. That’s something I can certainly relate to as the pandemic has smashed the economies of a great many countries; I have been in Willie’s position of filling out “impossible applications for impossible posts.” Britain is hit with this brutal recession because American industrialists engage in dumping, highlighting the sheer callousness of the rich towards the poor and the inability of his society to help its most vulnerable members.

But raw economics is not the only sort of madness that Wells denounces. In much of the book, there is the looming threat of war between Britain and Germany, which does eventually come to pass (and Willie gets caught in the crossfire). It’s a disturbing insight; eight years after the publication of this book, those two powers were at war, to spar at the Somme and to joust at Jutland. The madness of an oncoming war was clear as day to Wells; the feeling of impending doom that Willie and other characters feel is reminiscent to me of the summer (in America) of 2019, when there was the war scare between the United States and Iran. We can only hope that our own world does not follow Wells in this regard.

It is the big ideas that are the most interesting in this novel; unfortunately, though, it just simply isn’t that good in literary terms. Wells spends far too much time rambling; fortunately, he has wonderful prose (as always) but that can only count for so much when the plot grinds to a halt in the process. Furthermore, Willie spends much of the novel raging over the fact that his girlfriend broke up with him and then plotting to kill her new lover. It’s the sort of basic plot that is simply below what I expect from Wells; it’s an early work, in fairness, but this is by a Wells that had already written The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

In the Days of the Comet is a demonstration of what happens when a writer fails what I call the ‘Crossley Test.’ I take this from Robert Crossley’s afterword to Octavia Butler’s Kindred, where a fictional work concerned with social issues needs “good storytelling, not just good issues.” Wells has the latter in spades, but a dearth of the former, and the result is a book that is nowhere near as good as it could have been.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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