Saturday, May 27, 2006

In The Days Of The Comet, H. G. Wells

Title: In The Days Of The Comet
Author: H. G. Wells
Rating: Lousy

In The Days Of The Comet is the last H. G. Wells I am going to read, and I am glad this exercise is over. An approximate rating (on a scale from worst to best of: Terrible, Lousy, Poor, Neutral, OK, Good, Great) of the various Wells novels I have read in this collection looks like this:

Rating Title
OK OK The Time Machine
Poor Poor The Island Of Dr. Moreau
Good Good The Invisible Man
Good Good The War Of The Worlds
Lousy Lousy The First Men In The Moon
Terrible! Terrible The Food Of The Gods
Lousy Lousy In The Days Of The Comet

As I started reading this last book I had The Food Of The Gods on my brain, and it wasn't pleasant. I expected In The Days Of The Comet to be just as bad, as Wells was spiraling down into social commentary in these later works and (I suspected) getting less and less connected to reality. As it happens, In The Days Of The Comet isn't quite as bad as I thought it would be, but it still wasn't good.

As a work of science fiction it is undeniably weak. Actually it is a love story of sorts with a socialist twist. The fact that it is science fiction is only peripheral to the story. Most of what is here is boring exposition about the life of the hero just before a comet impacts the earth. He's completely uninteresting (like the rest of Wells's heroes), his actions are unbelievable, and the story doesn't really go anywhere. I kept thinking I should put the book down and read something more interesting, but there was a comet hanging over everything (literally) and I kept wondering just how he would get it back into the story and make it do something interesting. So I stupidly kept reading; a tactical error on my part.

The other thing present in the story is the hero's view of society. He's a vociferous but uninformed socialist, and Wells goes on at great length describing how unfair society is through his character's speech. The problem is that his presentation of things is so one-sided that I cannot assess how accurate it is, nor how seriously I should take it. The information is old (having been published in 1906) and my connection to that time in history is weak at best. Maybe people at the time could assess it better than I can.

Anyway, we slog through a lot of pages of this. It goes on forever. And then - finally - the comet hits earth. Given today's knowledge of comets we'd expect all kinds of bad things to happen: earthquakes, tidal waves, nasty weather for months, and possibly a mass extinction event. Wells didn't have the benefit of our deeper understanding of comets, so perhaps he can be forgiven for thinking that a comet could hit the earth and do no real damage.

What this comet does on impact, though, is change the nitrogen in the atmosphere in some mystical way so that every human on the planet is suddenly enlightened, or something like that. I will spare you the details, and that isn't hard because Wells isn't particularly clear on them either. The comet hits, the atmosphere changes, everyone falls asleep for a minimum of three hours, and when they wake up everyone thinks much more clearly. If you're thinking "Huh?", you're asking a very good question. In fact, though, if Wells had tried to include some complex explanation for what happens to make people "better", I'd have really hated this book, as I did with The Food Of The Gods, since the science would be entirely wrong. This is more like a fantasy, and you just have to let it slide.

But you can't let it slide entirely, and when Wells goes off to start talking (at great, dry and boring length again) about how the world is so much better after the comet, he again gives us a socialist rant of epic proportions, complete with multiple statements about how the entire idea of owning something (like land) has been abandoned to everyone's betterment. But as with the science, the specifics about how society will be so much better are not spelled out with the exception of the lack of property and one or two other nits. It's a bit like that old TV commercial. I kept thinking: "Where's the beef?"

Finally there is a mystery character here that is never adequately explained. The story is being written down by the hero, but there is someone else reading what he's written. Who he is, where he comes from, and why he matters is never dealt with. It's odd, and it feels entirely out of place, though it does give Wells the chance to suggest that his hero finally "settled down" in a family arrangement of sorts with two wives, and one of those wives had another husband too. Four adults sharing their lives (and loves, we're to read between the lines) together. The horror! But perhaps in 1906 that was a really racy idea.

In the end I have to pronounce this book a failure. It's not as bad a failure as The Food Of The Gods, but it is a failure none the less. If you're thinking of reading it, I suggest you go find yourself some other, more modern and well thought out political polemic and read it instead. You might learn something, which won't happen with In The Days Of The Comet.