In the Days of the Comet
|In the Days of the Comet|
Cover of first edition
|Author||H. G. Wells|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||The Century Co.|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Followed by||The Future in America|
In the Days of the Comet (1906) is a science fiction novel by H. G. Wells in which humanity is "exalted" when a comet causes "the nitrogen of the air, the old azote," to "change out of itself" and become "a respirable gas, differing indeed from oxygen, but helping and sustaining its action, a bath of strength and healing for nerve and brain." The result: "The great Change has come for evermore, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men."
An unnamed narrator is the author of a prologue ("The Man Who Wrote in the Tower") and an epilogue ("The Window of the Tower"). In these short texts is depicted an encounter with a "happy, active-looking" old man who is none other than the protagonist and author of the first-person narrative that is the novel per se: now 72 years of age, he is writing the story of his life immediately before and after "the Change."
This narrative is divided into three "books": Book I: The Comet; Book II: The Green Vapours; and Book III: The New World.
Book I, which is remarkable for its close description of early 20th-century working-class living conditions in the English Midlands, recounts how William ("Willie") Leadford, "third in the office staff of Rawdon's pot-bank [a place where pottery is made] in Clayton," quits his job just as an economic recession caused by American dumping hits industrial Britain, and is unable to find another position. His emotional life is dominated by his love for Nettie Stuart, "the daughter of the head gardener of the rich Mr. Verrall's widow", who lives 17 miles away in a village called Checkshill Towers. Converted to the cause of socialism by his older, scientifically inclined friend, Parload, Leadford is a headstrong youth who blames class-based injustice for the squalid living conditions in which he and his mother live. The date of the action is unspecified, but evidently takes place in the near future. (At the end of Book I war has broken out between Great Britain and Germany, so the book has a certain prophetic character.)
When Nettie jilts Leadford for the son and heir of the Verrall family he buys a revolver, intending to kill them both and then himself. As this plot matures, a comet with an "unprecedented band in the green" in its spectroscopy looms ever larger in the sky, eventually becoming brighter than the Moon. Leadford finds Nettie and Verrall in a little seaside bungalow village called Bone Cliff, near Shaphambury, as a naval battle is taking place off the coast. Just as he is about to execute his murderous plan the green comet enters the Earth's atmosphere, causing a green fog to envelop the planet that puts all animal life (except in the sea) to sleep for three hours.
Book II opens with Leadford's awakening. He feels a great clarity of mind and experiences a total alteration in his relation to himself, to society, and to the world. No longer is he dominated by passion; he is acutely aware of the beauty in the world and his attitude toward others is one of generous fellow-feeling. The same effects occur in everyone around the world; they immediately concur in the necessity to "begin afresh" and remake human society. By chance, Leadford falls in with a Cabinet minister and briefly becomes his secretary, enabling him to observe how leaders, too, come to their senses and resolve to transform society by eliminating private ownership of land, etc.
Book III begins with an intense discussion by Verrall, Leadford, and Nettie, about their future. Although Nettie wants to establish a ménage à trois, Leadford and Verrall reject the idea, and Leadford returns to devote himself to his mother, now in declining health. She dies toward the end of the Year of the Scaffolding (as the first year after the comet is called). Leadford marries Anna, who has been helping care for his mother, and they have a son, but soon thereafter Nettie contacts Leadford. They still love each other, but the felt necessity of sexual exclusivity has become a thing of the past.
In the epilogue, the author expresses distaste for this development, and the 72-year-old Leadford tells him that he and Nettie became lovers, and that he, Nettie, Verrall, and Anna were from then on "very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal lovers in a world of lovers." The author is troubled "by my uneasy sense of profound moral differences."
William "Willie" Leadford
At the beginning of the novel William Leadford is an angry, confident young man with an intellectual bent. Looking back fifty years later, he calls himself "ill clothed, ill fed, ill housed, ill educated and ill trained." His age is unclear: he is described both as 21 years of age and 17 or 18. He is a member of the British working class and, like H. G. Wells, a believer in socialism.
Leadford has been Nettie Stuart's "sweetheart" for more than three years. He works in a "pot-bank," has studied shorthand, and is a religious sceptic. He lives in lodgings with his timid, work-worn, but loving mother, widowed by a train accident, who believes in "a quaint old-fashioned narrow faith."
Nettie, the beautiful daughter of a gardener, has known William Leadford since they were children because their mothers were "second cousins and old schoolfellows."
The Verralls are a wealthy upper-class family. Mrs. Verrall is a widow. Edward Verrall is "a gallant youngster, people said, and very clever. Young as he was there was talk of parliament for him; he had been a great success at the university."
Leadford's only close friend is a fellow clerk and socialist. But the pair quarrel and Leadford breaks off relations when Parload avers that socialism is "only a theory," whereas science is "something more". In later years Parload becomes a great scientist whose "work upon intersecting radiations has broadened the intellectual horizon of mankind for ever."
Utopia and Dystopia
The pre-Change world is often described as dark, corrupt, spoiled, unjust, and ugly. Politicians do little for those living in squalid conditions. Book I, Chapter 3, Section 4 includes a diatribe against the institution of war, "certainly the most strikingly insane" of "all the monstrous irrational phenomena of the former time." All this is ended forever in three hours by the comet's green vapours, and all see themselves and the world differently.
Hate, distrust, and selfishness are eliminated after the Change, and individuals regard their previous existences with shameful incomprehension. Many things become useless or meaningless: ownership titles, political institutions, nations, many industries, armies, and many weapons. In Book III, Chapter 3, Wells presents an extensive satire of the British Cabinet. After the Change, larger buildings begin to be used as collective dining halls, and the mansions of the wealthy are converted to nursing homes. A makeshift engineer's school re-educates people, and there is extensive demolition and destruction of structures and objects from the past.
William Leadford argues for open marriage and polyamory, though he does not use those terms. But H. G. Wells distances himself from these highly controversial and, at the time, socially unacceptable notions by having another narrator, half-censure them in the epilogue.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Facsimile of the original 1st edition
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book II, Chapter 2, Section 1.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 2.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book II, Chapter 3, Sections 2 and 3.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Epilogue.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 2, Section 1.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 2: "Parload was two and twenty, and eight months older than I."
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 2, Section 4: "When I and Nettie had been sixteen we had been just of an age and contemporaries together. Now we were a year and three-quarters older."
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 1.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 2, Section 6.
- H. G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 4.