Two Comets: H.G. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois

I mentioned the other day that I’ve been writing a couple of short stories, just to give myself a breather on the novel I’m working on.

One of those stories, the one I discussed in connection with the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, is kind of response to two interesting “comet” SF stories I read back in 2010, and have been thinking about ever since:

  1. In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells,
  2. “The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (which was collected in the first of Sheree Renée Thomas’ Dark Matter anthologies, but it’s also available in the public domain, as part Du Bois’ collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil).

I thought I’d posted about them back then, but it seems I hadn’t. I think I was working on an academic paper about this pair of stories, but it never got written, so, well… here’s a post instead.

It’s fascinating to read the two texts side by side, and that’s what this post will do, but I strongly recommend you read the Du Bois, linked above, before you read this post. It’s hard to discuss a story that short without spoilers. So, consider yourself warned.

days of the cometWells’ story is a utopian vision of humanity transformed, and actually, I’d argue it’s probably the first modern post-Singulatarian story, really. The transformation is brought about by the gases emitted from a comet that slips past the Earth: a near collision becomes basically the occasion for a kind of proto-Singulatarian event, when everyone on Earth is suddenly knocked out for a little while, and wakes up to discover they’ve gotten a neurological firmware upgrade, basically. Suddenly everyone is very, very reasonable and rational and sensible.

(Sadly, The Singularity as written by H.G. Wells kind of sucks, in the way I imagine a lot of Singularities written today will look laughable to people a century from now. Utopian perfection in In The Days of the Comet is basically a Fabian wet-dream in terms of political economy and free love, but doesn’t include the elimination of misogyny or racism; indeed, that firmware upgrade kind of seems to involve everyone but white men realizing the horrible truth about themselves, with women berating themselves for being shallow, Jews apologizing for their behaviour throughout history, and blacks being 100% comfortable being called the racial epithet that shall not get repeated here; I posted in more detail about that back in 2010.)


Then there’s Du Bois’ story, which feels to me like a response to the Wells novel. It’s possible that in fact it was a response to Wells’ story. After all, Du Bois and Wells met, more than once; the first time at the Pan-African Congress in 1923 (at the London session–chaired by Du Bois, and at which Wells spoke); later, Du Bois wrote to arrange a meeting with Wells quite late in the latter’s life, in 1945. The exposure seems to have been positive for Wells–while he never really managed to eliminate racist assumptions from his work completely, he at least became conscious of the tendency and fought it as he got older.

(So much so that even Malcolm X mentions Wells work as important in the development of his thinking: he specifically mentions Wells’ An Outline of History in his autobiography, a book that, while it definitely isn’t free of racialized thinking–and for example is transparently Eurocentric in parts–also consciously attempts to reject the notion racial superiority.)

DarkwaterIn any case Du Bois’ “The Comet” is much shorter than Wells’ novel, but is fascinating, and difficult to discuss without spoiling it.

It starts with the same speculative conceit: a comet comes close to striking the Earth, and wreaks havoc on humanity. But Du Bois’s story is told from the point of view of a black man who, finding himself the lone apparent survivor of a comet-induced mass die-off among humanity, wanders New York that, because it is stripped of white people, is also stripped of racism. He enters a restaurant he would never have been allowed to enter, “steals” a car (but from whom?) and finally searches the city for survivors. When he meets one more survivor–a white woman–eventually the question comes up: if he is the last man on Earth, and she is the last woman on Earth, what then? Can they repopulate the planet? It seems possible… but of course, the old order is more durable than that–white is white, and black is black, and never the twain could be imagined to meet–as the downbeat ending proves.

(Which is interesting: it fits the notion I found among Korean emigrants to the USA during the first half of the 20th century–whose comments on the subject were reported in Donald Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea–that the prime indicator of American racism was whether a white woman would both consent to marry, and be allowed to marry, a Korean man.)

In any case, it’s kind of the sad, discouraging anti-utopia that forms the perfect, intelligent counterpoint to Wells’ futuristic boosterism. Wells at least has black people in his future (unlike a lot of pulp SF from later) but Du Bois’ story certainly stands as a criticism of the position that they occupied… and as a reminder of the durability of hatred and stupidity, but also of the warping effect of racism. (After all, at the end, the black male narrator is reunited with a (black) woman who apparently is his wife; one gets the feeling the reader ought to see this as a happy ending–he survived! They’re together again!–except that… it doesn’t feel like one. At all.) Brilliant stuff, in other words, and it makes me want to read the rest of DU Bois’ Darkwater too.

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To me, the two stories really complement one another: the clarity of vision in Du Bois about how world-changing events also (potentially) strip away the status quo politics of oppression, but that the politics of oppression are horrendously durable, but that people can still overcome their imaginative barriers given half a chance; and likewise, the same awful durability on display in Wells’ novel, in the petulant racism and sexism of the supposedly radically-uplifted mind of the narrator. Grinding the two stories together, what I find comes loose on the edges is… well, it looks kind of like satire.

HowardWho?Or, at least, so far, 2000 words into the story, that’s what it looks like. You can thank Howard Waldrop for that: I’ve been reading Howard Who? this week, and he’s rubbing off on me a little, I guess.

2 thoughts on “Two Comets: H.G. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois

    1. Yeah, it’s a great story, and fascinating to compare side by side with the Wells comet novel.

      I imagine you probably sought it out after reading the other newly uncovered W.E.B. Du Bois SF story, “The Princess Steel,” but if not, it’s available for free on It’s been at the top of my to-read pile for a couple of weeks. Exams, a baby, and deadlines have all kept it there, but I look forward to getting to it soon.

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