Again, as part of the research for my current writing project, I’ve been digging into some of the work of H.G. Wells, specifically the stuff he’s famous for today. It may surprise some people — not the SF fans reading my site, of course, but perhaps those who never checked out Wells beyond his work — that H.G. Wells was more well-known in his time for things other than those scientific romances of the early days, like The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The Time Machine.
One thing he was well-known for was the torrent non-SF fiction he cranked out following that first huge wave of SF. Novels like Mr. Britling Sees It Through, or Ann Veronica, which I may perhaps read someday, but which many have noted are of limited appeal, and have aged less well than Wells’ SF writings.
And he didn’t attain this public stature by repudiating SF, by the way, the way we might imagine he’d have had to do. No, he wrote on in that genre, here and there. But more and more often, the science fiction began to lack the fiction component. Now, while prophesy existed before, this was different. I sincerely doubt that we could call Wells the first futurist, but he certainly feels something like our first futurist — for a value of “our” that exists at the intersection of modernity, science-informed prognostication, and activist criticism. As I investigate his SF and his futurist works alike, I understand just how much of it lay the groundwork for the genres of SF and futurism as we know them. (For example, the anxieties and assumptiond underlying the Vingean Singularity are, to a somewhat overwhelming degree, explicitly present in most of his SF novels.)
But more of that link another time. In the title of this post, I promised a review of In the Days of the Comet, one of Wells’ early, SF novels, first published in 1906. First, on the text — while the link above is for a free online edition, since the book has long been in the public domain, I am actually reading it in a library-discard volume that my father gave me ages ago — probably in 1983 or 1984 — titled Seven Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.
(The spine is so discolored by sunlight from its nearly twenty-year position on a shelf of a library in northern Saskatchewan that the lighter text, “Science… Novels… H.G.” are faded to near-invisibility, so that, as my friend Jack long ago pointed out, the spine simply reads “SEVEN… FICTION… OF… WELLS.” That the public library where we were living sold off the book is something I find sad, but one only hopes that the library reacquired the texts in paperback form, or at the very least offers a link to the free public domain editions online now.)
In any case, when my father gave me this book I was only about ten or eleven, perhaps twelve at the oldest. I read the first few novels in the text — the ones I mentioned above as Wells’ most famous — and then set it aside to read later. And there it remained until now. While I am reading In the Days of the Comet as research, and may also dive into The Food of the Gods for the same project, I think I really perhaps ought to reread all those novels, as I am finding many things in the text I would not have noticed had I read the novel as a child.
What am I finding? Well, for one thing, Wells’ text is fascinating in how it sets up science and politics as oppositional in his time. The protagonist in the story, a young man named Willie, is a devoted socialist, with all the muddled-headedness that one can expect of a young, politically-minded, lower-class fellow… who, by the way, is for much of the book quite madly in love with a young woman named Nettie, stark raving mad in love, buying a revolver and planning to hunt down his beloved Nettie’s new beau, and Nettie herself, to make sure nobody can enjoy her if he is to live his life bereft of her sweet love.
In other words, Willie loses his shit and goes gangsta on his ex’s new boyfriend. Or at least, he would have. He was planning to. Now, pause for a moment and consider Willie in this state.
This is, of course, a caricature of Wells himself, who hailed from a poor background, who indeed was a socialist, who indeed did get entangled in all kinds of complex affairs of the heart. But the strange thing is that it is also weirdly realist, in its depiction of the world in which Wells lived in 1906.
And this, brilliantly, is used to pull that trick that Darko Suvin so famously called cognitive estrangement. There is a great deal of anxiety about the chastity of Willie’s former lover, for example, which could have been lifted straight from any social novel of the Victorian or Edwardian era, or even later. Will Nettie sleep with Verral? Will he use her and cast her aside, unable to marry her even if he wishes to because she is so low-born?
The brilliant thing, the cognitive estrangement, is achieved by a reversal of the normality of these tropes. For the narrator explains all of this in passages full of apologies and caveats addressing the imaginary reader, for the has been written for an audience that is… well, to use our terminology, post-human (or post-Singulatarian). Not that Wells conceives of posthumanity or the Singularity as we do, but it’s the closest reference we have.
The readers of the main text are living in an imaginary, utopian future after something called “The Change,” which is caused by the influence of the gases of a comet as it passes the Earth. People in the post-Change world are less muddled-headed, less irrational and emotional, and by their very nature — as well as their improved education — find utterly baffling the idiocies which occupied most of humanity before The Change — those idiocies which were, in fact, not seen as idiocies but as the way things were for the real audience of the book in 1905. Perhaps — it seems likely to me — at least a few authors did this prior to Wells, but since I haven’t read them it seems like a fresh solution to the problem of how to depict the future, and to depict life after a massive change in human nature. (Those who think depicting posthumanity is impossible, take note!)
This is a wonderful sidestep — to mostly avoid depicting the wondrous future, except its first few years, and then only to do so after you’ve introduced your readers into it, first through negative depiction: the world now is not like this was, the world is not now like that was, it’s hard for you to understand but the world really was like this… which, since the narrator is describing the normal, everyday world (albeit through a very socialist lens) suggests the world after The Change is nothing like we know — what it the future is manifestly not like is the fundamentally familiar stuff of the real world.
Or, rather, the fundamentally flawed, wrong, unfair, or annoying — to Wells and like-minded thinkers — stuff of English society in his time. There are long passages describing the life of Willie’s mother, from Willie’s point of view, in which the “poor woman” is described as poor, dirty, afflicted, suffering, abject, and so on. Her mentality — her desire that Willie not upset “it”, which means God, or the way things are, or the powers-that-be in society — is discussed by the post-Change narrator Willie at great length, but also with great compassion and gentleness.
Wells takes great care to alienate readers by implication here. He takes the familiar — the unhappy scene of a kitchen, or of a high-class woman approaching a lower-class man to attempt to sort out the elopement of their children — and renders it a tool for the depiction of his SFnal future world by explicitly claiming, “This is ancient and bizarre and hard to wrap your heads around, I know,” over and over. In doing so, he creates an implied world around the text in which some other, different — and unmistakably Wellsian — logic must apply. Yet it takes a great deal of time before we more than glimpse this other world, this better tomorrow that follows The Change.
The introduction of the reader into a world that is somewhat alien to the reader — an alternate history, a deep future — is common enough a move, one that is best followed, once the reader has gotten comfortable, with the shattering of that comfort. Ooops! The world is about to transform again! Wells instead makes the present of the reader — the real world, or at least a literary caricature of it — an inherently unheimliche space, pointing the reader at some better tomorrow that is “normal.” In fact, the genius move is that he paints a picture of the world we know, the real world of his readers in 1906, as a hellish dystopia — which, probably not for his readers but for many in that world, was a pretty accurate picture of things.
But this is all setup for walking the reader through The Change.
The Change, it’s worth noting here, is biological. The closest analogy any of us could have for it, experientially, would be adolescence — wherein the bewildering range of changes we never thought possible crash in upon our minds and suddenly new awarenesses flower in the brain. It is as the movement from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood… and there, Wells seems to argue, we have always got stuck. In the Days of the Comet imagines another stage, not just to individuals but to the species, a stage to the world entire, and it follows the passage of a great comet, and the bathing of the Earth in the greenish vapours of that comet’s double-tail.
There is an artfulness to the way Wells works the different lines of the story: a war off the coast is going on, his protagonist Willie is hurrying to the little gathering of cottages where Nettie and Verrall are — he is quite sure — even then making love, and overhead, the comet is approaching. The shots of great naval guns resonate from the sea, and revolver in hand Willie finds the couple, glimpses them and chases after them… and then, with the bathing of the greenish comet vapours, all goes blank.
Green is an interesting choice of color, and there are many mentions of the color throughout the text prior to the comet’s arrival — though curiously fewer after. There are green faces, occasionally, glimpsed in darkness, but the mentions of green seem to cluster in three topics: the green of verdure, the green of the comet, and the green of things associated with Nettie. Certainly, the most stunning mention of green (for me) was connected to Nettie, who wears a scarf of green gossamer on the very day upon which she rejects him and breaks his heart. They pass through a green gate and into a garden where her family awaits, and later they are sent to talk, alone, in a greenhouse. She questions his love while touching “the green branches of a selaginella” (whatever that is), and then rejects him. Green, green, green. Indeed, the only place in the text where we see green mentioned as often as in this encounter with Nettie is in descriptions of the comet itself.
Why should the comet vapors be green? Why should green be associated with this Change in humanity?
One is drawn to question whether Wells had in mind the color green as associated with envy, for one of the great effects of the Change seems to be a reduction of irrational emotionality, and indeed a very powerful reduction of the power of human Envy to control human actions. Green, as envy, is something that Willie felt for some time in connection to Nettie even after the Change, to be certain, but it no longer controlled his actions. Whereas before the Change, Willie sought to kill Nettie and Verrall, afterward he is able to sit with them and talk rationally about his feelings, and about theirs. More than this, she is able to talk about her feelings, including, in what must have been dreadfully surprising to the original audience, an argument for free love, based, one must note, on a repudiation of Envy.
And not to spoil the ending, but this repudiation of Envy indeed wins out in the end, as she and Verrall and Willie and his wife Anna, the woman who cared for his mother on her death-bed, take up together and form a sort of ménage à quatre. Willie knows not how many men Nettie “loved” in her life, only that he and Verrall were two of them, and concurrently so. It is a stark turning-over of the mainstream Victorian ethics that still held sway early in the twentieth-century, but Wells articulates it more as a stark turning over of human nature itself. What’s more interesting still is how Nettie reacts to the change. Some random sexism plays a part in the vivisection of all their passions. Nettie has some funny reasons for falling in love with Verrall, after all:
Nettie’s hands fell upon the table. “I can’t tell what it was,” she said, speaking bare-hearted straight to me. “Girls aren’t trained as men are trained to look into their minds. I can’t see it yet. All sorts of mean little motives were there–over and above the ‘must.’ Mean motives. I kept thinking of his clothes.” She smiled–a flash of brightness at Verrall. “I kept thinking of being like a lady and sitting in an hotel–with men like butlers waiting. It’s the dreadful truth, Willie. Things as mean as that! Things meaner than that!”
I can see her now pleading with me, speaking with a frankness as bright and amazing as the dawn of the first great morning.
“It wasn’t all mean,” I said slowly, after a pause.
“No!” They spoke together.
“But a woman chooses more than a man does,” Nettie added. “I saw it all in little bright pictures. Do you know–that jacket–there’s something—— You won’t mind my telling you? But you won’t now!”
I nodded, “No.”
She spoke as if she spoke to my soul, very quietly and very earnestly, seeking to give the truth. “Something cottony in that cloth of yours,” she said. “I know there’s something horrible in being swung round by things like that, but they did swing me round. In the old time–to have confessed that! And I hated Clayton–and the grime of it. That kitchen! Your mother’s dreadful kitchen! And besides, Willie, I was afraid of you. I didn’t understand you and I did him. It’s different now–but then I knew what he meant. And there was his voice.”
“Yes,” I said to Verrall, making these discoveries quietly, “yes, Verrall, you have a good voice. Queer I never thought of that before!”
We sat silently for a time before our vivisected passions.
Still, this is the same Nettie who, not much farther on in the text, when she is told to choose between Verrall and Willie, cries out — in a voice familiar to us still today,
“Oh! Why are women always the slaves of sex? Is this great age of Reason and Light that has come to alter nothing of that? And men too! I think it is all–stupid. I do not believe this is the right solution of the thing, or anything but the bad habits of the time that was. . . Instinct! You don’t let your instincts rule you in a lot of other things. Here am I between you. Here is Edward. I–love him because he is gay and pleasant, and because–because I LIKE him! Here is Willie–a part of me–my first secret, my oldest friend! Why must I not have both? Am I not a mind that you must think of me as nothing but a woman? imagine me always as a thing to struggle for?… Let us three keep together,” she said. “Let us not part. To part is hate, Willie. Why should we not anyhow keep friends? Meet and talk?”
Willie, of course, rejects her thinking, only to learn how wrong he was in the end. But knowing what we know of Wells’ life, of his own passions and choices, we must wonder to what degree this is humanist utopianism, and to what degree it’s merely personal wish fulfillment. (And, of course, this invites the question of how separated utopias tend to be for any author in the world. It suggests that the only real utopia would also be a polyutopia — a multiplicity of utopias, each with differing ideas to fulfill the differing wishes of the denizens of the world. Strangely, the world of Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books comes to mind, though I’ve only managed to get my hands on the first one, mind.)
However muted the sexism might be by the arguable sexual liberation of Nettie, there are other places where a reader of today struggles to take Wells at his word that the world he depicts is all that utopian. At a remove of a little over a century, some things stand out as plainly ugly about the shape of this supposedly much-improved world, and much-improved humankind. For one, it is assumed that the word “nigger” is still in regular use — even as Wells’ narrator is pointing out that the Change has transformed humans worldwide — and there is a particularly disturbing moment during the confessions of various members of the British government about their sins in ruling and working, where some more clear racism rears its head:
Gurker, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was partially occulted, so far as I was concerned, by the back of Lord Adisham. Ever and again Gurker protruded into the discussion, swaying forward, a deep throaty voice, a big nose, a coarse mouth with a drooping everted lower lip, eyes peering amidst folds and wrinkles. He made his confession for his race. “We Jews,” he said, “have gone through the system of this world, creating nothing, consolidating many things, destroying much. Our racial self-conceit has been monstrous. We seem to have used our ample coarse intellectuality for no other purpose than to develop and master and maintain the convention of property, to turn life into a sort of mercantile chess and spend our winnings grossly. . . . We have had no sense of service to mankind. Beauty which is godhead–we made it a possession.”
Apparently in Wells’ utopia, blacks don’t mind being called a racial epithet — or whites needn’t worry if they do — and the Jews have internalized a self-hatred that British socialists particularly would have imagined they ought to accept. Wells was accused of racism in the past, and claimed he was anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, but whatever the standards for his time, we see it differently today.
This is one of the weird paradoxes of the text, one that is common in utopias in general, but especially the utopias of the past: the post-Change world doesn’t quite look so Utopian to us. Nor, indeed, do the gender roles shift so much after the Change, compared to how they have shifted in our real world: why, for example, does Willie labour “like a man” while some complete stranger (Anna) become his mother’s caretaker, ending up indeed being the one present for her death while Willie is off helping in the great reconstruction? It’s understandable that Wells had blind spots, that Wells’ conception of the utopian might maintain contemporary gender roles, just as in our conception of the utopian we embrace a set of gender roles common to us today — roles which, whatever we like to think, remain doubly imbalanced for having shifted domestic work out of the women’s domain, without having effectively shifted it into the men’s domain in any institutional way. (Who takes care of the kids? Strangers… when it should be both parents, whom the institutions in our society aid to be able to do so, for example with flexible scheduling and other systems.)
For all the change that the Change ushers in, with its fundamental shift in human nature, one is tempted to claim that it doesn’t hold a candle to all the changes that the civil rights movement brought about in a mere hundred-and-four years.
And there is a great deal of energy in the post-Change world devoted to ridding the Earth of all the detritus of the Old Days. There are monstrous Beltane-fires wherein are burnt everything from old cars and furniture, the woodwork of old abandoned houses (which are being torn down so that “better houses” can be had for all, and to a pattern supposedly better for all too — there is mention of “communal kitchens and nurseries” somewhere, in contrast to the horrid kitchen of his mother’s years of toil, and of course land-ownership has become a thing of the past as well. But I found myself distinctly discomfited by the program of book-burning which becomes a part of the post-Change rebuilding.
But these were the coarse material bases of the Phoenix fires of the world. These were but the outward and visible signs of the innumerable claims, rights, adhesions, debts, bills, deeds, and charters that were cast upon the fires; a vast accumulation of insignia and uniforms neither curious enough nor beautiful enough to preserve, went to swell the blaze, and all (saving a few truly glorious trophies and memories) of our symbols, our apparatus and material of war. Then innumerable triumphs of our old, bastard, half-commercial, fine-art were presently condemned, great oil paintings, done to please the half-educated middle-class, glared for a moment and were gone, Academy marbles crumbled to useful lime, a gross multitude of silly statuettes and decorative crockery, and hangings, and embroideries, and bad music, and musical instruments shared this fate. And books, countless books, too, and bales of newspapers went also to these pyres. From the private houses in Swathinglea alone–which I had deemed, perhaps not unjustly, altogether illiterate–we gathered a whole dust-cart full of cheap ill-printed editions of the minor English classics–for the most part very dull stuff indeed and still clean–and about a truckload of thumbed and dog-eared penny fiction, watery base stuff, the dropsy of our nation’s mind. . . . And it seemed to me that when we gathered those books and papers together, we gathered together something more than print and paper, we gathered warped and crippled ideas and contagious base suggestions, the formulae of dull tolerances and stupid impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuities of sluggish habits of thinking and timid and indolent evasions. There was more than a touch of malignant satisfaction for me in helping gather it all together.
Were a few copies saved of the texts thus dispatched, that humanity could know its own past and history? What, so nobody got a kick out of pulp crap anymore? What if those novels, later on, might have been fun to read, or even revelatory of the state that humans lived in, when those who lived before the Change have all passed away? How about photos of those trashy statues? Snapshots of those ugly commercial paintings? Surely the past wasn’t all consigned to this bonfire of vanity?
Here the post-Change people seem just as adolescent in their erasure-enabled historiography as Willie was in his passionate, hateful politics prior to the Change. It’s an eerie image, the enormous neo-Beltane fires that burn away so much of the past, so much of the unforgivable truth of the human past but also so much of their culture, supposedly consuming all that pain and horror and guilt that the post-Change people feel when thinking on their own lives before the coming of the comet… and for all the talk of renewal, the post-Change world seems, or rather is shown to feel, strangely haunted by, and bound to, its vulgar pre-Change past.
The most interesting thing about this Change, however, is what seems for Wells the fundamentally necessary condition of the kinds of political and social change for which he long argued as our own fate. Willie is transformed twice, after all: once by his envious, jealous love of Nettie, and once — along with the rest of humanity — by the green vapours of the comet. If we cannot call it a deus ex machina, it is, at least, a deus ex cometes. The green vapours of the comet bring on the Change. One would be tempted to ask, were Wells still among us and preaching his gospel of Things to Come, this question: Whence comest our real world’s Green Vapors?
Here it becomes interesting, since Green is so deeply linked to Nettie, and to Willie at his worst when it comes to her. Green (Envy) drives him to attempted murder. Green (envy) drives nations like Britain to war. And yet, it is through the Green that mankind must pass in order to reach liberation, the stage in development that supposedly, for a species, is what we often think of as adulthood (though Wells seems also to argue humanity in the collective as well as individuality has mistaken its extended, interminable adolescence for adulthood). Is Wells arguing that only through confronting and working through our envies and greeds shall we grow? That seems a bit strange as a reading: England is already at war with Germany, just as Willie is already on the verge of murdering Nettie and Verrall, when the comet strikes.
The Change, in other words, does not come by effort, just as the corruption of the world — the utterly dystopian nature of the past (the reader’s present) is not so much the result of human evil as human ignorance, as Willie himself realizes when confronted with Verrall’s mother. The machinery of the world — the system by which things happen, including, we presume, evolution — runs on without humankind’s intervention, just as the newspaper-machines run freely through the night in Britain as humanity sleeps through the Change. (A stunning imagine, and one worth remarking on.)
And this, it seems to me, is the weakness of Wells’ utopian vision within In the Days of the Comet: the Change, taken on the terms offered by the text (flawed as they are) allows humanity to improve, but not through effort, not through education or any other thing we can believe in. The Change happens simply by luck or chance. Things happen suddenly and humans become wholly more rational — but if you can wave a magic wand and make humans more rational, then the business of setting up a utopia is just a matter of elbow-grease. (And moreover — if you can humans all rational and preserve their diversity of thinking, it becomes a matter again of negotiation and elbow grease in perhaps equal parts.)
But the real challenge, in the end, is that there are no green vapours to call upon, no magic wands to wave. There is progress, but it is a slow and halting thing, prone to fits and starts and conking out along the way. Elbow grease, yes, but more than that is needed. Patience, and whatever meager hope we can summon up, and a lot of talk, and work. This is the reality we are faced with. Writing fiction of change about that world is a fitting challenge to people who care for it.
However, along the way, fantasies may serve some purpose. We can, at least, learn what utopia cannot be like, and what we should not expect. And we can dream of better, which, at the very least, we can thank Wells for reminding us in this novel. It may not be the version of better he wanted about which we will dream, but then, we cannot expect everything of just one person.