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In the Days of the Comet (1906)

by H. G. Wells

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7841524,302 (3.06)40
H. G. Wells, in his 1906 In the Days of the Comet uses the vapors of a comet to trigger a deep and lasting change in humanity's perspective on themselves and the world. In the build-up to a great war, poor student William Leadford struggles against the harsh conditions the lower-class live under. He also falls in love with a middle-class girl named Nettie. But when he discovers that Nettie has eloped with a man of upper-class standing, William struggles with the betrayal, and in the disorder of his own mind decides to buy a revolver and kill them both. All through this a large comet lights the night sky with a green glow, bright enough that the street lamps are left unlit.… (more)
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What an odd little book. I was surprised to see that Wells wrote this later than all his other famous, hyper-influential SF novels, because it reads more like an early failed experiment, but it sure is interesting.

The first section, a realistic portrait of a not very interesting Victorian young man, is quite a slog; you can tell that this novel was not serialized, because most readers would've given up after several chapters about his career decisions and romantic disappointments, wondering when he'd get to the damn comet.

Then [spoiler:] there's a comet, and everyone is scared, but instead of destroying the world, it saves it-- since as luck would have it, the comet is basically made out of magic Prozac. And then the rest of the book is a utopia, but since it's a new one rather than an established one, everyone's trying to adjust to no longer being screwed up and neurotic.

Unlike a lot of idea-based utopian narratives, Wells pays attention to what it might feel like, personally, to be cured of anxiety-- how promising yet totally weird it would be-- and sometimes he gets it across well, as early on when a guy accidentally breaks his ankle and notices that although it hurts and all, he's not freaking out, it's just one of those things that happens. And the earlier realistic slog pays off somewhat as the narrator realizes how all the vague angst he'd been going on about was just silly and unnecessary, but he still feels duty-bound to keep worrying about it, even though he's now physically unable to worry; he keeps trying to stay jealous of his ex-girlfriend and her new guy, even as she's trying to tell him that everything's cool because now they can all be lovers. That stuff rang true to me; Wells understood that when people have spent their whole lives learning how to be serious and unhappy, they're not going to want all that effort to have been wasted.

On the other hand, it also has one of the weirdest bits of oblivious racism I've ever seen. There's a post-comet scene where some businessmen and politicians are testifying ruefully about what jerks they used to be, and one of them is a Jewish banker... not just any Jewish banker, but the Jewish banker, the creepy greedy smelly sneaky one of anti-semitic legend. But now, like everyone else, he's a decent guy; and he tells his own story, which is basically: "Wow, we Jews sure were greedy and awful! But it was just because of our mental hangups about being so weird and inferior! Now, thanks to the comet, we can all just get along." It's particularly bizarre because Wells obviously thought of this as an enlightened view-- i.e. they're not genetically bad, they're just all twisted and evil for psychological/cultural reasons. And yet, ew.

It's no mystery why the book isn't well known: it basically has no plot, and in the end it's a big "wouldn't it be nice if" relying on a deus ex machina. (And although it's always appealing to think that we could be awesome if we just weren't being held back by some kind of psychic debris-- Gurdjieff, Colin Wilson, and L. Ron Hubbard come to mind-- Wells refuses to give us any superpowers as a result of this, other than happiness, so SF readers may feel cheated.) But because it never caught on like his other books (many of which created whole subgenres), I found it kind of fresh and surprising despite the clunky aspects.

Oddly, the closest connection I can think of in later SF is in the work of [a:Samuel Delany|49111|Samuel R. Delany|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1207158768p2/49111.jpg], who had two very different takes on parts of the premise: [b:Triton|85893|Trouble on Triton An Ambiguous Heterotopia|Samuel R. Delany|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1266468960s/85893.jpg|82889], where human nature hasn't changed but there's still a (sort of) utopia where a neurotic guy has trouble adjusting, and [b:Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand|85861|Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand|Samuel R. Delany|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1171062756s/85861.jpg|945568], where you can get a treatment to make you incapable of worrying about anything but then you immediately get sold into slavery. ( )
1 vote elibishop173 | Oct 11, 2021 |
https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/3688183.html

The planet earth passes through the tail of a comet, and as the result of a massive collective shift of spiritual consciousness, human society is transformed into a polyamorous happy new state of affairs. It goes on for a bit longer than that, but that's the gist. Really rather earnest, even by Wells' standards. ( )
  nwhyte | Jul 22, 2021 |
This was quite an intriguing, and very well written in parts, novel by H.G Wells. I felt this was him still experimenting with form, structure, and style- but that is some of the greatest things about this book. It is unlike any of his others and that is where the power lies. Overall, I was well entertained and think this offers much for readers.

3.25 stars. ( )
  DanielSTJ | May 5, 2020 |
This story was hard to like. The main character was a despicable fellow. He was self absorbed, full of hatred and was so full of self loathing and hatred of those around him that he could not function as a member of society...he knew this but yet was ok with it. The only thing he cared about was a stuck up socialite which eventually put him on the road to murder. Victorian/Edwardian Era Hippies and free love....this must have been scandalous at the time it was written. But the moral is there...I guess. ( )
  Joe73 | Oct 15, 2017 |
This H. G. Wells novel is hard to like, though he carries it out with his usual attention to detail. We get a protagonist who doesn't see what's important, our man William who scrabbled along. What makes this work as well as it does is its retrospective tone: the world of today seems very strange when viewed from the future, and Wells emphasizes this with the kind of explanations our narrator has to provide. But then a magic gas makes everyone act perfectly rationally from then on, and a new society free of the problems of the old one is born. (There's sort of a subgenre of apocalypses caused by strange gases at the turn of the century: In the Days of the Comet is preceded by M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, and followed by Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt. I don't know if there are others.) In terms of providing practical solutions, there's not a lot going on, but I think this book is more about suggesting a way of thinking and seeing that would do all of us some good. Or so Wells thinks; anyone who has read a lot of Wells will be unsurprised to learn that according to the book, free love is the way to go.
  Stevil2001 | Sep 15, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
H. G. Wellsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bova, BenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lowndes, Robert A.W.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I saw a grey-haired man, a figure of hale age, sitting at a desk and writing.
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H. G. Wells, in his 1906 In the Days of the Comet uses the vapors of a comet to trigger a deep and lasting change in humanity's perspective on themselves and the world. In the build-up to a great war, poor student William Leadford struggles against the harsh conditions the lower-class live under. He also falls in love with a middle-class girl named Nettie. But when he discovers that Nettie has eloped with a man of upper-class standing, William struggles with the betrayal, and in the disorder of his own mind decides to buy a revolver and kill them both. All through this a large comet lights the night sky with a green glow, bright enough that the street lamps are left unlit.

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