ell, it seems we’ve gone and put the science fiction category to shame! In my attempts to drag myself through the dark finale of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, I seem to have killed my muse. It was either that or the guest pass to World of Warcraft and the flood of guests my own age distracting me from more mature pursuits.
No more apologies. Today, I step back to consider the lighter tales in science fiction, hopeful futures. My hopes for utopian visions in In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells were discouraged a bit by the introducer’s notes about the pessimistic, even murderous disposition of the main character. The pleasant old man in the tower in the prologue, however, turns out to be the same man. Instead of a first person account of the destruction of the world, Wells is still hopeful enough to give this character the vision and experience of a transformation that turns men into "angels."
Again, I borrow from the introducer, none other than Ben Bova, of his own science fiction fame. He, a more qualified judge of these things, also points out that Willie Leadford, is not the protagonist. The comet is.
Spoilers beyond what you can find on the back jacket follow…
After the intricacy of Shelley, I read much more easily through the pages of this novel. When I reach the transformative moment on page 85, Wells reminds me how just how far away he is in space and time from my own experience, while at the same time foreshadowing the transformation about to take place.
The narrator describes his imagined recreation of an old woman’s view of him, the young man who hates her viciously for her wealth and obliviousness to the ills of the world that he cannot ignore:
I have tried since to imagine how the thing must have looked to her. So far as her particular universe went, I had not existed at all, or I had existed only as a dim black thing, an insignificant speck, far away across her park in irrelevant, unimportant transit, until this moment when she came sedately troubled, into her own secure gardens and sought for Stuart among the greenhouses. Then abruptly I flashed into being down that green-walled, brick-floored vista as a black-a-vised, ill-clad young man, who first stared and then advanced scowling toward her. Once in existence I developed rapidly. I grew larger in perspective and more and more important and sinister every moment. I came up the steps with inconceivable hostility and disrespect in my bearing, towered over her, becoming for an instant at least a sort of second French Revolution, and delivered myself with the intensest concentration of those wicked and incomprehensible words. Just for a second I threatened annihilation. Happily that was my climax.
And then I had gone by, and the Universe was very much as it had always been except for the swirl in it, and the faint sense of insecurity my episode left in its wake.
In describing only a moment of threat between a physically vulnerable, but financially powerful individual and this young personification of revenge on the scale of the French Revolution, his goals as bloody in intent and springing from similar roots, Wells creates the kind of scene that will never again occur after the arrival of the much anticipated, feared, but supernatural comet. Within the next few pages, the narrator, Willie, resolves himself to murder the woman he desires–and I will not say "loves" because young, impulsive infatuation, no matter how deep, falls short of love if destruction is a second best option to having her all to himself–and then the word "WAR" itself becomes a horrible image, even to him, just as the comet strikes.
Willie, like Heinlein’s Stranger, eventually collapses in fits of laughter at the messes that were formerly his and his acquaintances lives. The childlike wonder with which the "Martian Man" first arrived on Earth is the result of the comet on the whole human race. Rather than build a strange religion or cult to draw people away from their petty pursuits, Wells produces, with what Bova rightly notes as a mere "deus ex machina," a euphoria brought on by a sudden relief that "this Judgment must have come and passed"(134). From this crux in the story, Willie continues on to experience the full implications of this transformation on the whole human population, only gradually realizing the source of his new happy confusion.
A moment of familiar perspective returns, with the frame of the second narrator, who reads this manuscript, but his failure to comprehend is briefly overcome with the same intensity that once marked Willie’s rage. His outsider view and our own blends briefly as reader and narrator stand viewing this Utopia, not in the warped mirror above the old man’s head, but directly, from the window of his tower.
For a moment, I was tempted to jump and join them.