Tuesday, 30 May 2017

This Misery of Boots (1907)

Wells joined the Fabian Society in March 1903 and left it in September 1908. His time as a member makes for a complicated, involved and not terribly edifying story. But there's no avoiding it: it was the focus of his political thought in the first decade of the 1900s, and was the proximate cause for a good deal of his writing at this time. So bear with me whilst I lay some of this material out. There is, I promise, a larger point.

The Fabian Society was founded in London, January 1884, with the aim of promoting socialism via reform and democracy rather than violent revolution. It still exists (you can join it, if you want to, for what strikes me as the very reasonable sum of £3.50 a month), and its website makes a big deal of the role it played in some of the major developments in 20th-century British social and political history:
The 1880s saw an upsurge in socialist activity in Britain and the Fabian Society were at the heart of much of it. Against the backdrop of the Match Girls’ strike and the 1889 London Dock strike, the landmark Fabian Essays was published, containing essays by George Bernard Shaw, Graham Walls [they mean Wallas], Sidney Webb, Sydney Olivier and Annie Besant. All the contributors were united by their rejection of violent upheaval as a method of change, preferring to use the power of local government and trade unionism to effect change.

The early Fabians’ commitment to non-violent political change was underlined by the role many Fabians played in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1900.

None of the early figures in the Fabian Society were more significant than Beatrice and Sidney Webb in developing the ideas that would come to characterise Fabian thinking and in developing the thorough research methodology that remains a feature of the Society to the present day. Both prodigious authors, Beatrice and Sidney wrote extensively on a wide range of topics, but it was Beatrice’s 1909 Minority Report to the Commission of the Poor Law that was perhaps their most remembered contribution. This landmark report provided the foundation stone for much of the modern welfare state. [‘The Early Fabians: “Educate, Agitate, Organise”’]
No mention of Wells on their website, interestingly enough. Now, the Fabians certainly were important; although not all historians of the early British labour movement would style them as quite so central as they themselves do, here. For example, the Labour Party's own current website doesn't mention the Fabians at all; and Andrew Thorpe's standard History of the British Labour Party (Palgrave, 3rd ed 2008) rather witheringly asserts ‘the Fabians were not as influential as they liked to claim’ [13]. Really, here, we're touching upon a key fault-line in Labour as a political entity. I should declare my own interest before I go any further: I am, as anyone who knows me will confirm, a thoroughly middle-class individual. Although my own party membership lapsed some years ago I'd still describe myself as a socialist. At the moment (I'm writing a week or so before the 2017 UK General Election) the Labour leader is Jeremy Corbyn, and the party belongs to the Corbynistas. The last few years have seen a pretty ferocious battle for the party between Corbyn's supporters and the Blairite wing. Indeed, it really is hard to overestimate just how loathed Blair is by some Labour supporters nowadays. There are many in the party (I know several such) who hate him more than they hate the Tories—hate, that is, the man who led the party to an unprecedented three consecutive general election victories, who brought in the minimum wage, civil partnerships (paving the way for gay marriage), Freedom of Information, devolution in Scotland and Wales, the peace process in Northern Ireland, humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and many other good things. Blair haters tend to cite his support for Bush's invasion of Iraq as the reason for their animadversion; but I sometimes suspect that this functions as the manifest symptom of a much more profound latent dislike of the way New Labour recreated the party as, in effect, a middle class entity—albeit, one still dependent on a large number of working class voters. It made for a broader electoral appeal, and pragmatically speaking Labour can only do good if it is in power; but the way some see it, the price was the party's soul. For some, Labour can only ever be authentic as a working-class party.

And this fault line goes right back to the origins of the movement as such. There's a version of the party's history that front-and-centres the working class Trades Unionists and the members of the Labour Representation Committee: actual workers like Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson. The Fabian Society, on the other hand, was a middle-class organisation from the get-go, and not only in the sense that its most prominent members were affluent bourgeois individuals like the Webbs, Pease, Bland and Nesbit. As Ian Britain notes: ‘all membership records and contemporary observations testify to the almost exclusively middle-class origins of the Fabian Society’s adherents, from the time of its earliest foundation in 1884 onwards’ [Britain, Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts (Cambridge Univ. Press 1982), 6].

For the purposes of this blog, the key thing is how Wells fitted into this world. He was, clearly, not middle class like the Webbs; but neither was he properly working class. His mother having been in service, and the fact that his father had been a shopkeeper, and from time to time a professional cricketer (a player, that is, rather than a gentleman), means that his background was lower, or probably lower-lower-middle-class. Of course, by the 1900s he was a self-made man, and very wealthy; but that's not to say he exactly fitted-in with the affluent middle- and upper-middle-class bulk of the Fabians. It's not coincidental, I think, that Wells's closest friend in the Fabian Society was George Bernard Shaw, who, by virtue of being Irish, stood rather outside the bindweed complexities of English class identity.

The two things that the Fabians hoped Wells would bring to the Society were: a new energy—one of Wells's great talents was his ‘go’, what he sometimes described as ‘whoosh’—and a popular reach, via his widely-read journalism and fiction, to get the message out. And Wells was initially keen, although what he wanted was a large-scale reform of the organisation. He proposed doing away with the governing committee, establishing a triumvirate of elected leaders, expanding the Society's membership, new and larger headquarters in London, a dedicated newspaper and other things. The Fabians wanted his energy, and they got it: he read papers before the Society, published a pamphlet called The Faults of the Fabians in 1906, followed it up in quick order with another pamphlet containing proposals for reform (Reconstruction of the Fabian Society, 1906), lobbied, travelled the country, and moved motions. Looking back in the Experiment in Autobiography he describes what he encountered as ‘the little Fabian Society, wizened already though not old’, and summarises his approach:
I envisaged that reconditioned Fabian Society as becoming, by means of vigorous propaganda, mainly carried on by young people, the directive element of a reorganized socialist party. We would attack the coming generation at the high school, technical college and university stage, and our organization would quicken into a constructive social stratum.
He adds, with characteristic half-self-deprecation:
The idea was as good as the attempt to realize it was futile. On various occasions in my life it has been borne in on me, in spite of a stout internal defence, that I can be quite remarkably silly and inept; but no part of my career rankles so acutely in my memory with the conviction of bad judgement, gusty impulse and real inexcusable vanity, as that storm in the Fabian tea-cup. From the first my motives were misunderstood, and it should have been my business to make them understandable. I antagonized Shaw and Beatrice Webb for example, by my ill-aimed aggressiveness ... I was fundamentally right and I was wrong-headed and I left the Society, at last, if possible more politically parliamentary and ineffective than I found it. If I were to recount the comings and goings of that petty, dusty conflict beginning with my paper The Faults of the Fabian (February 1906) and ending with my resignation in September 1908, the reader would be intolerably bored. Fortunately for him it would bore me far more to disinter the documents, fight my battles over again and write it all down. And nobody else will ever do it. [Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 564-65]
That last sentence hasn't proved true, at any rate: there have been many accounts of this whole kerfuffle, and most of them really do make it sound like the Judean People's Front's internal procedural quarrels with the Popular Front of Judea. Actually, I don't think that's right, for reasons I'll go into below. But you can see why many people see it that way.

Take the saga of This Misery of Boots, just as a for-instance. Wells first published this piece, under the title ‘The Misery of Boots’, in the Independent Review, December 1905. He then delivered it as a talk to Society on 12 January 1906. It is nicely-handled piece of Socialism 101 from, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, the ground up: Wells remembers his childhood, looking up from his basement room through the grating, to where he could see only the feet of passers by; and goes on through the various cellars, garrets and apprentice rooms in which he has lodged, dim, closed in, filled with shadows, away from the sun. He points out that boots figure much more largely in the lives of those who can barely afford them than in the lives of the affluent, and for that reason the affluent don't understand how hugely important they are, how profoundly immiserating it is to have to wear ill-fitting or broken-down boots that pinch the toes or expose the heel. Wells neatly captures how these petty miseries restrict and degrade life, and how they aggregate into something monstrous. From this he extrapolates:
Here on the one hand —you can see for yourself in any unfashionable part of Great Britain—are people badly, uncomfortably, painfully shod, in old boots, rotten boots, sham boots; and on the other great stretches of land in the world, with unlimited possibilities of cattle and leather and great numbers of people, who, either through wealth or trade disorder, are doing no work. And our question is: ‘Why cannot the latter set to work and make and distribute boots?’
His point is that the problem of boots cannot be solved piecemeal; everything that goes into their manufacture and distribution must be altered, and that means that all the processes of manufacture and distribution must be altered as well. The book's last chapter (of five) contains an oblique snipe at the Fabians:
Let us be clear about one thing: that Socialism means revolution, that it means a change in the every-day texture of life. It may be a very gradual change, but it will be a very complete one. You cannot change the world, and at the same time not change the world. You will find Socialists about, or at any rate men calling themselves Socialists, who will pretend that this is not so, who will assure you that some odd little jobbing about municipal gas and water is Socialism, and back-stairs intervention between Conservative and Liberal the way to the millennium. You might as well call a gas jet in the lobby of a meeting-house, the glory of God in Heaven!
Despite this, the article went down well, especially with younger Fabians. The proposal was made to publish it as a separate book, but this stalled. Wells, in a hurry to get things moving before he left for America in March (on this trip) followed up ‘The Misery of Boots’ by presenting a manifesto for change to a meeting of the Society in February. It pulled no punches. The Society had 700 members and ought to have 7000 ‘and everything to scale’. Fabianism ‘strikes the observer as being still half a drawing-room society ... playing at polito-sociological research’. Their engagement with the world amounted to ‘a little dribble of activities’. Wells called for more money, new offices, opening the Society freely to new members (up to this point prospective members had to be vetted by the executive) and undertaking large-scale outreach and propaganda work. The executive agreed to set up a committee to look into Wells's proposals, but there were grumblings, and Wells's manner was not smoothing them over. Shaw wrote to him on 17th Feb saying ‘we cannot afford to quarrel with you because we want to get tracts out of you’ but warning him that ‘when we treat your onslaught as onslaught, and hold the fort against you, don't suppose we are in a huff’.

Publicly and behind the scenes debate clattered on through 1906: Webb told Shaw that he thought the ‘Boots’ piece more or less disposable, and Shaw wrote back: ‘do not underrate Wells. What you said the other day about his article in the Independent Review being a mere piece of journalism suggested to me that you did not appreciate the effect his writing produces on the imagination of the movement.’ Shaw knew very well how popular Wells was with younger Fabians. Not that he was any happier with these proposals than was Sidney Webb; and other key Fabians, especially Hubert Bland, had taken very strongly against Wells. Anthony West's biography doesn't mince its words where this relationship is concerned: ‘my father found Bland third-rate and incredible and did his best to ignore him ... [Bland's] distaste for my father became a positive enmity’ [Anthony West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), 294]. West thinks the hidden key to all the Fabian furore was sexual; that Wells was too popular with the Fabian wives. There may be something in that too, although there's surely enough merely political and personal animosity to explain the kerfuffle without that. Anyone who has been involved in politics at this level will recognise how much like a catfight things can get.

At any rate, the Society held off from publishing This Misery of Boots (a better title than the original article's, I'd say) for the time being. Edward Pease insisted that what he called ‘sneers’ against Shaw and the Webbs had to be removed; and Shaw himself wrote to Wells on the 11th September 1906 advising him that ‘as a matter of intellectual loyalty’ he had better cut the offending passages. Sidney Webb wrote to Wells commending his ‘very interesting and well put’ critique of the Fabians, but saying he did not ‘believe the Society will accept your proposals’. Matters came to a head at the end of the year at a December meeting and debate. Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie give us a good account of this whole business and its denouement. After many speeches, Shaw worked his magic on the assembly, turning accepting or rejecting Wells's ideas into a vote of confidence on the Fabian leadership itself:
With the audience won as only Shaw knew how to win it, he was able to close the trap. ‘There is nothing for it now but annihilation of the present executive or unconditional surrender by Mr Wells,’ he said. Most of his colleagues wanted to press the matter to a vote, but that would have put such members of the special committee [that had investigated Wells's proposals] as Sydney Oliver and Maud Reeves in an ignominious position. H.G. ... had no option but to rise and—with the best grace he could muster—withdraw his amendment. [Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Time Traveller: a Life of H.G. Wells (Weidenfeld, 1973), 218]
It was, they note, a ‘humiliating defeat’ for Wells. A few days later Shaw tried to conciliate his friend by suggesting he might be able to take a position on the Fabian executive in the Spring, but Wells, say the Mackenzies, ‘was never able to adjust himself to the tempo of Fabian affairs’ [221]. When This Misery of Boots was finally published as a book in 1907, the offending ‘sneers’ were still in.

The whole affair wound slowly down. ‘The order of the Fabian Samurai perished unborn,’ is how Wells puts it, in the Experiment in Autobiography. ‘I went, discoursing to undergraduate branches and local branches, to Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester and elsewhere pursuing the lengthening threads of our disputes. The society would neither give itself to me to do what I wished with it, nor cast me out. It liked the entertainment of its lively evenings. And at last I suddenly became aware of the disproportionate waste of my energy in these disputes and abandoned my attack.’ He resigned from the Fabians in 1908, and worked his experiences, and the workings of politics they revealed to him, into The New Machiavelli (1911).

Still: however petty and abstract as these things read now, a ‘storm in a Fabian tea-cup’ by Wells's own admission, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as nothing more than an irrelevance of dusty triviality. That Wells wished subsequently to style it in those terms had more to do with his own wounded amour propre than the reality.

And by ‘reality’ I mean: the ways in which the Fabian society did actual good in the world. At the same time that this kerfuffle was fuffling on, Beatrice Webb was invited to join a Royal Commission on the Poor Law, something Balfour handed over to the new Liberal government that had ousted him in the General Election of January 1906. This commission eventually published its majority report in 17 February 1908, proposing the abolition of the workhouses and the locally-elected Boards of Guardians who oversaw them, along with various other things. Webb, though, published what amounted to a dissenting ‘minority report’, and this document had a much wider impact. Here's how Barbara Wootton summarises her conclusions:
Beatrice soon parted company with the majority, inasmuch as she started from the assumption that ‘the poor’ were not a class apart, but a miscellaneous collection of all sorts of people who had been impoverished in various ways – as by illness, old age or unemployment. She therefore sought her remedy in the provision of specialist agencies competent to handle these contingencies before they led to destitution. In effect, this led her to sketch what turned out to be something like a forecast of the social legislation which was subsequently developed. Beatrice wanted free medical treatment, pensions for the aged and a national system of labour exchanges and training centres to minimise unemployment.
And as that blurb I quoted from the Fabian Society website above says: ‘it was Beatrice’s 1909 Minority Report to the Commission of the Poor Law that ... provided the foundation stone for much of the modern welfare state’. Adopted in effect wholesale by the Labour Party, and put into practice across the board after the 1945 Labour landslide, it completely altered the social landscape of the United Kingdom. To revisit the personal datum, which I touched on briefly above: however solidly middle-class I am today, my situation and opportunities are a direct consequence of this rearrangement. My parents were both, in Neil Kinnock's resonant phrase, the first in their families for a thousand generations to go to University. My mother's ancestors were all coal miners and Welsh shepherds; my father's ancestors working-class northerners. They two could train as doctors because the Welfare State provided them with the free schooling and university education that enabled them to make the most of their abilities. I survived my own birth only because of NHS expertise; my own daughter's epilepsy has been treated and expertly managed by that same organisation (if I'd been American, this small fact of my daughter's life would surely have bankrupted our family). So the whole drama of Wells and the Fabians is not abstruse and remote political in-fighty bickering, or not only that. It mattered then and still matters today.

Of course, it was the Labour Party, not the Fabians, who actually made the Welfare State happen. And what Wells calls for in The Misery of Boots is more than just an ameliorative superstructure of free schools and hospitals. It is the ground-level nationalisation of all collective property: ‘the establishment of a new and better order of society by the abolition of private property in land, in natural productions, and in their exploitation’. ‘If,’ he declares, ‘you are not prepared to struggle for that, you are not really a Socialist.’ But that only raises in my mind the question of how things might, or might not, have worked out differently. The 1945 Attlee government created a National Health service, and nationalised the railways and some other industries; but it did not abolish private property. Could it have? There's a practical side to that question, but also an ideological side. Paul Addison thinks that:
Socialist planning would have required the nationalisation of all major industries and services. Whether Labour ever intended this is doubtful, .... The incoming Attlee government was pledged by the Manifesto to a specific programme of nationalisation, all of which was carried through by 1951. But the programme was inherently ambiguous. Was it a frontier marking the limits of state control, or a bridgehead from which further advances were to be made? In a party of doctrinal rigour the problem would have been sorted out in advance. But the Labour Government had to determine its strategy half-way through. In 1947 Attlee’s troops halted beneath the mighty walls of the steel industry and a debate broke out over whether they dare storm the citadel. In effect, a show was made of taking over steel while the underlying decision was to veer away from further nationalisation.
Wells proposals for the Fabians were not that it should assume the responsibilities of the Labour Party in toto, but they might have injected precisely this doctrinal rigour into the movement. His failure left the Society as what it now, rather bathetically, calls itself: a think-tank. Might it have been otherwise?

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Future in America: a Search after Realities (1906)

Wells left for America aboard the RMS Carmania on 27th March 1906 armed with letters of introduction to various eminent Americans. He toured New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, giving lectures and meeting, among others, Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T Washington and Maxim Gorki (who happened to be visiting the country at the same time). He didn't stay long, coming back on the TSS Cambria in May. It was Wells's first time in America. He didn't return to the country until 1921.

The book he wrote about his travels was first published in instalments in Harper's Weekly, July 14-October 6, 1906. Volume publication was by Chapman and Hall in London (above) and Harper Brothers in New York:
Chapter 1. The Prophetic Habit Of Mind
Chapter 2. Material Progress
Chapter 3. New York
Chapter 4. Growth Invincible
Chapter 5. The Economic Process
Chapter 6. Some Aspects Of American Wealth
Chapter 7. Certain Workers
Chapter 8. Corruption
Chapter 9. The Immigrant
Chapter 10. State-Blindness
Chapter 11. Two Studies In Disappointment
Chapter 12. The Tragedy Of Color
Chapter 13. The Mind Of A Modern State
Chapter 14. Culture
Chapter 15. At Washington
The Envoy
It's a strange text; not uninteresting and full of energetic writing, but rather inert for all that, without obvious focus beyond its geographical one, and evasive of conclusion. ‘I went over there to find whatever consciousness or vague consciousness of a common purpose there may be, what is their Vision, their American Utopia,’ Wells announces at the get-go; ‘how much will there is shaping to attain it, how much capacity goes with the will—what, in short, there is in America, over and above the mere mechanical consequences of scattering multitudes of energetic Europeans athwart a vast healthy, productive and practically empty continent in the temperate zone.’ [1:5]  So it's the Vision: the Vision thing, he's trying to discover. The problem is, having read the book, I'm not sure what the Vision looks like, exactly.

Wells's starting point is straightforward enough: America is actually big as well as metaphorically big. Size is the keynote. So, chapter 1 is largely given over to Wells's reminiscences as to how he used to imagine the future in terms of its impending bigness:
One made fantastic exaggerations ... If the maximum velocity of land travel in 1800 was twelve miles an hour and in 1900 (let us say) sixty miles an hour, then one concludes that in 2000 A.D. it will be three hundred miles an hour. If the population of America in 1800—but I refrain from this second instance. In that fashion one got out a sort of gigantesque caricature of the existing world, everything swollen to vast proportions and massive beyond measure. [Future in America, 1.1]
300 mph! Imagine that! This looks like it is disavowing such crude speculative grandiosity: but the first half, pretty much, of The Future in America is given over to a series of goggle-eyed panegyrics to size as such, the echt American sublime. Chapter 2 contrasts the ‘little cockle-shells of Columbus’ and the tiny steamship in which Dickens crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s with Wells' transport, ‘the Carmania with its unparalleled steadfastness, its racing, tireless great turbines, its vast population of 3244 souls!’ This craft is presented as a metaphor for Progress itself:
It has on the whole a tremendous effect of having come by fate and its own forces. One forgets that any one planned it, much of it indeed has so much the quality of moving, as the planets move, in the very nature of things. You go aft and see the wake tailing away across the blue ridges, you go forward and see the cleft water, lift protestingly, roll back in an indignant crest, own itself beaten and go pouring by in great foaming waves on either hand ... Equally so does it seem this great, gleaming, confident thing of power and metal came inevitably out of the past and will lead on to still more shining, still swifter and securer monsters in the future. [Future in America, 2.2]
When he gets to New York Wells is so struck by the scale of Brooklyn Bridge he inserts what amounts to a prose-poem in praise of its enormousness:
Its greatness is not in its design, but in the quality of necessity one perceives in its inanimate immensity. One sees parts of Cyclopean stone arches, one gets suggestive glimpses through the jungle growth of business now of the back, now of the flanks, of the monster; then, as one comes out on the river, one discovers far up in one's sky the long sweep of the bridge itself, foreshortened and with a maximum of perspective effect; the streams of pedestrians and the long line of carts and vans, quaintly microscopic against the blue, the creeping progress of the little cars on the lower edge of the long chain of netting; all these things dwindling indistinguishably before Brooklyn is reached. Thence, if it is late afternoon, one may walk back to City Hall Park and encounter and experience the convergent stream of clerks and workers making for the bridge, mark it grow denser and denser, until at last they come near choking even the broad approaches of the giant duct, until the congested multitudes jostle and fight for a way. They arrive marching afoot by every street in endless procession; crammed trolley-cars disgorge them; the Subway pours them out. The individuals count for nothing, they are clerks and stenographers, shopmen, shop-girls, workers of innumerable types, black-coated men, hat-and-blouse girls, shabby and cheaply clad persons, such as one sees in London, in Berlin, anywhere. Perhaps they hurry more, perhaps they seem more eager. But the distinctive effect is the mass, the black torrent, rippled with unmeaning faces, the great, the unprecedented multitudinousness of the thing, the inhuman force of it all. [Future in America, 3:1]
Years before Hart Crane, this.

Promenading New York fills him with a sense of ‘an immeasurably powerful forward movement of rapid eager advance, a process of enlargement and increment in every material sense’ [3:2]. He visits Ellis Island and finds it ‘quietly immense’, boggling at the huge crowds of people patiently waiting:
This year the [immigrant] total will be 1,200,000 souls, pouring in, finding work at once, producing no fall in wages. They start digging and building and making. Just think of the dimensions of it! [Future in America, 3:3]
Boston he finds ‘more impressive, even, than the crowded largeness of New York’, on account of the rational way its expansion is being planned, contrasting it with London to the latter's disadvantage: ‘London, that like a bowl of viscid human fluid, boils sullenly over the rim of its encircling hills and slops messily and uglily into the home counties’ [4:1]. And may I, as someone born and raised in London, just interject here to say: cheers, Bertie. Thanks for that savoury image.

When Wells visits Niagara he is less struck by the natural sublime than the technological one: ‘[the] dynamos and turbines of the Niagara Falls Power Company impressed me far more profoundly’ [4:2]. Chicago is ‘a wilderness of sky-scrapers’, where ‘growth forced itself upon me again as the dominant American fact, but this time a dark disorder of growth’ [4:3].

Chapter 6 sketches some of the very rich people he met, and how their mode of conspicuous wealth exceeds the rich Europeans Wells knows:
In that splendid and luminous bubble, the Prince Amerigo and Maggie Verver, Mr. Verver, that assiduous collector, and the adventurous Charlotte Stant float far above a world of toil and anxiety, spending with a large refinement, with a perfected assurance and precision. They spend as flowers open. But this is the quintessence, the sublimation, the idealization of the rich American. [Future in America, 6:1].
Chapter 7, on workers, notes ‘still no general effect of impoverishment’ [7:1]. We're almost half-way through, and it's starting to seem as though Wells's America will be all gush and hugeness. The book does make a few concessions to the other side of the case: Wells deplores the fact of the country's lumpenproletariat (‘that teeming abyss where children have no chance, where men and women dream neither of leisure nor of self-respect’ [8:1]) and declares corruption to be widespread: ‘what is called corruption in America is a thing not confined to politics; it is a defect of moral method found in every department of American life’ [8:2]. That's unfettered Capitalism for you I suppose. But the tenor of the book as a whole is starry-eyed wonder at the sheer scale of the place.

This bigness is partly a matter of topography and engineering, and partly a matter of raw populousness. And it is this latter that dominates the second half of the book, what chapter 9 calls the country's ‘indigestion of immigrants’, a circumstances that tempts Wells into Jeremiah-style prophecies of gloom:
In the “colored” population America has already ten million descendants of unassimilated and perhaps inassimilable labor immigrants. These people are not only half civilized and ignorant, but they have infected the white population about them with a kindred ignorance ... And I have a foreboding that in this mixed flood of workers that pours into America by the million to-day, in this torrent of ignorance, against which that heroic being, the schoolmarm, battles at present all unaided by men, there is to be found the possibility of another dreadful separation of class and kind. One sees the possibility of a rich industrial and mercantile aristocracy of western European origin, dominating a darker-haired, darker-eyed, uneducated proletariat from central and eastern Europe. [Future in America, 9:3]
‘The immigrants are being given votes, I know,’ Wells says, but he adds, rather worryingly: ‘but that does not free them, it only enslaves the country.’ Democracy? Pff!

This leads into Chapter 12, on ‘color’, which is mostly given over to Wells's meeting with Booker T. Washington. It's perhaps the trickiest portion of the whole book to evaluate: a repudiation of integral racism that can't quite give up racism as such. On the one hand Wells rehearses racial libels (‘the uncontrollable violence of a black man's evil passions’; ‘stupidity’; ‘physical offensiveness, [and] peculiar smell’) precisely in order to dismiss them for the lies that they are. And he's clear on the extent to which environment shapes being. So he praises the higher levels of civilisation and culture amongst West Indian Blacks, but concedes Washington's retort concerning the greater degradation and violence of South African Blacks: ‘Think,’ Wells exhorts his readers, ‘of all that must have happened in wrongful practice and wrongful law and neglected educational possibilities before our Zulus in Natal were goaded to face massacre, spear against rifle!’ [12:1]. Other portions of the chapter though strike a much less progressive tone.

Indeed, my sense is that this chapter manifests, in a number of ways, an subconscious anxiety about race itself as destabilising the clear-line Bigness Wells otherwise wants to locate as the distinctiveness of America. He is, for instance, pointedly struck by Washington's paleness. Before their meeting he'd assumed he would be ‘black as ink’ when actually he had ‘a face rather Irish in type’, ‘a man certainly as white in appearance as our Admiral Fisher, who is, as a matter of fact, quite white’ [12:3]. Those last nine words, easily missed, are pregnant with significance: Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet, First Sea Lord and Britain's highest ranked sailor, was born in Ceylon (as it used to be called) and his career was dogged by insinuations that the yellow-brown colour of his skin and the arrangement of his facial features showed him ‘tainted’ by Chinese or Malay blood. He insisted both his parents were white and put his skin-colour down to a youthful bout of dysentery and malaria. What's interesting in this is the way so prominent a public figure could serve as the focus for broader anxieties about ‘passing’—for, that is, non-White people pretending to be White. After all, it can be hard to tell. So: here's a picture of Fisher. After what I've just said, be honest with me: are you perusing his photo to see whether you reckon he looks, just a little, mixed-race White/Sri-Lankan?

Here for comparison (as if you didn't already know what he looked like) is Booker T. Washington:

So, according to someone who met both gentlemen: their skin-tone was the same.

‘Passing’ was a significant anxiety at the time, especially in the States (a whole sub-discipline of sociology studies it), and it speaks to a wider problematic. On the one hand, as many critics and historians note, it embodies in a fairly straightforward way the contradiction at the heart of racism itself: race is either innate inequality occasioned by ‘natural’ differences or it is an arbitrary signifier determined merely by social convention and performance. If it's the latter then racial prejudice has no natural ground; but if it's the former then how is it that so many people are able to pass? Amy Robinson puts it this way: ‘the “problem” of identity, a problem to which passing owes the very possibility of its practice, is predicated on the false promise of the visible as epistemological guarantee’ [716]. Elaine K. Ginsberg [in Passing and the Fictions of Identity (1994), 9] notes that ‘little is documented about the actual extent of race passing by blacks in the United States’, but goes on:
The spectre of passing derives its power not from the number of instances of passing but as a signification that embodies the anxieties and contradictions of a racially stratified society … threaten[ing] the security of white identity, on both individual and societal level
‘When race is no longer visible, it is no longer intelligible’ is her conclusion. Vision, again; under a different aegis. Wells himself includes this example:
“Let me tell you a little story just to illustrate,” said one deponent to me in an impressive undertone—“just to illustrate, you know. A few years ago a young fellow came to Boston from New Orleans. Looked all right. Dark—but he explained that by an Italian grandmother. Touch of French in him, too. Popular. Well, he made advances to a Boston girl—good family. Gave a fairly straight account of himself. Married.”

He paused. “Course of time—offspring. Little son.”

His eye made me feel what was coming.

“Was it by any chance very, very black?” I whispered.

“Yes, sir. Black! Black as your hat. Absolutely negroid. Projecting jaw, thick lips, frizzy hair, flat nose—everything. But consider the mother's feelings, sir, consider that! A pure-minded, pure white woman!” [Future in America, 12:2]
Washington argues for a mode of enlightened Segregation: ‘that black and white might live without mingling and without injustice, side by side.’ Wells does not concur: ‘That I do not believe. Racial differences seem to me always to exasperate intercourse unless people have been elaborately trained to ignore them. The most miserable and disorderly countries of the world are the countries where two races, two inadequate cultures, keep a jarring, continuous separation. “You must repudiate separation,” I said.’ And though the meeting ends with what reads like a heartfelt Wellsian peroration to ‘the quality of the resolve, the steadfast effort hundreds of black and colored men are making to-day to live blamelessly, honorably, and patiently’, this chapter also contains passages like this:
It is to the tainted whites my sympathies go out. The black or mainly black people seem to be fairly content with their inferiority; one sees them all about the States as waiters, cab-drivers, railway porters, car attendants, laborers of various sorts, a pleasant, smiling, acquiescent folk. But consider the case of a man with a broader brain than such small uses need, conscious, perhaps, of exceptional gifts, capable of wide interests and sustained attempts, who is perhaps as English as you or I, with just a touch of color in his eyes, in his lips, in his fingernails, and in his imagination. Think of the accumulating sense of injustice he must bear with him through life, the perpetual slight and insult he must undergo from all that is vulgar and brutal among the whites! Something of that one may read in the sorrowful pages of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. They would have made Alexandre Dumas travel in the Jim Crow car if he had come to Virginia. [Future in America, 12:2]
Hard to know how to take this, except as a hostage to racist fortune. I mean, doesn't it imply that a degraded existence is fine for ‘true’ Blacks, but would become an existential outrage once degrees of Whiteness are admitted? A pleasant, smiling, narrow-brained, acquiescent folk—dear lord!

The last few chapters look to the future, framing the question in terms of ‘accelerating the reaction upon the people of America of the best and least mercenary of their national thought?' [13:4]. He visits Princeton and Harvard and meets professors; he explores American culture (a Boston orchestra does a very passable Beethoven's Fifth, which he considers a good sign). He chats with President Roosevelt: ‘he assimilates contemporary thought, delocalizes and reverberates it. He is America for the first time vocal to itself.’ [15:2] They discuss the state of America, and Wells, despite being hugely impressed by the Presidential energy and intelligence, nonetheless starts to lose faith in the country: ‘it is a curious thing that as I talked with President Roosevelt in the garden of the White House there came back to me quite forcibly that undertone of doubt that has haunted me throughout this journey.’
After all, does this magnificent appearance of beginnings which is America, convey any clear and certain promise of permanence and fulfilment whatever? Much makes for construction, a great wave of reform is going on, but will it drive on to anything more than a breaking impact upon even more gigantic uncertainties and dangers. Is America a giant childhood or a gigantic futility? [Future in America, 15:5]
Roosevelt himself makes reference to Wells's own Time Machine:
He mentioned a little book of mine, an early book full of the deliberate pessimism of youth, in which I drew a picture of a future of decadence, of a time when constructive effort had fought its fight and failed, when the inevitable segregations of an individualistic system had worked themselves out and all the hope and vigor of humanity had gone forever. The descendants of the workers had become etiolated, sinister, and subterranean monsters, the property-owners had degenerated into a hectic and feebly self-indulgent race, living fitfully amid the ruins of the present time. He became gesticulatory, and his straining voice a note higher in denying this as a credible interpretation of destiny. With one of those sudden movements of his, he knelt forward in a garden chair—we were standing before our parting beneath the colonnade—and addressed me very earnestly over the back, clutching it, and then thrusting out his familiar gesture, a hand first partly open and then closed.

“Suppose after all,” he said, slowly, “that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it. It's worth it—even then....” [Future in America, 15:5]
Terminal ellipses Wells's own. Butterflies and Morlocks is either a Rooseveltian misremembering of the novel's specifics, or else a pretty good midrash, actually, on the Wellsian original text. After all: who breaks a butterfly upon a Wells?

The Future in America was respectfully greeted by actual Americans (for instance by Joseph Auerbach and Garrett Droppers), although it has been almost wholly neglected by subsequent scholars and critics of Wells. Which fact is interesting, in its way. Reading it straight through, I was struck by the things it doesn't mention. Granted that Wells's stay was short, and limited to the Eastern seaboard plus Chicago, still: there's no mention of the Civil War and its aftermath; nothing on the ‘Gilded Age’ battles over unionisation and worker's rights, strike busting and the Pinkertons, anything like that, save a rather breezy declaration that ‘I came away with the clear impression that neither President Roosevelt nor America will ever, as some people prophesy, “declare for socialism”’ [15:5]. But the most striking omission in the book is women. Hardly any are mentioned, beyond the odd name here and there and a tendency to picture ‘the immigrant and his womankind’ [9:1]; the focus is on specific men, and on manliness in a larger sense.

The journalist in Wells had good reasons for copestone-ing the book with Roosevelt. He's the most famous contemporary name, clearly, by some way. But there are thematic reasons too, for ending with him. Like him or not, one has to concede that manliness was central to Roosevelt as a politician and a human being. Erik Loomis thinks that ‘no president captures the American imagination like Theodore Roosevelt. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives all find something to love about the man’, but adds:
Roosevelt was obsessed with his own manhood ... Roosevelt’s writing make this clear enough. He constantly talked about the need to make the boy a man by taking him hunting and training him for war. Roosevelt loved hunting himself, as well as boxing, football.This was all recreation for him, but it had a much larger purpose: to train a new generation of boys, growing up in enervating and polluted cities, how to become good soldiers ready to defend the republic. [Loomis, ‘Book Review: Lewis L. Gould, Theodore Roosevelt’, Lawyers Guns and Money, 28 March 2012]
He's not wrong: Roosevelt's speeches and articles, all the stuff collected in The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (1910), are absolutely steeped in this: manliness as direct correlative to good (‘"Good," in the largest sense, should include whatever is fine, straightforward, clean, brave, and manly’; ‘anything that relaxes the manly fiber and lowers self-respect, is an unmixed evil’). The word ‘manly’ chimes through the Roosevelt's book like a bell. A manly bell. He applies it to individuals (‘the effect that a thoroughly manly, thoroughly straight and upright boy can have upon the companions of his own age, and upon those who are younger, is incalculable. If he is not thoroughly manly, then they will not respect him, and his good qualities will count for but little’) and also to nations, as with his theory that China's international decline was a consequence of a deficiency of, yes indeed, manliness, and that the US should learn from their example. If not
we should find, beyond a shadow of question, what China has already found, that in this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities. [Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life (1910); this chapter was originally a speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899]
Roosevelt, of course, walked the walk as well as talking this talk, wrestling bears and punching coyotes and so on, exploring the South American wilderness and getting shot in the chest by an assassin but still delivering the 45 minute stump-speech he had come to make rather than going to hospital. It's harder to picture under-height, sickly Wells as any such avatar of hyper-masculinity. Yet immanent throughout The Future in America is a sense that the American, and so the global, future is to be characterised by a hyperbolic masculinized forcefulness.

This, I think, explains the book's rather over-earnest, sometimes over-excited, fetish of sublimity as the tenor of the West. Take the concept of the Sublime back its roots in European aesthetic discourse—back, that is, to Kant and Burke—and it's absolutely unambiguously gendered: in Terry Eagleton's words ‘the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is that between woman and man’ [Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 54-55]. Barbara Claire Freeman goes into greater detail:
Burke's distinction between the sublime and the beautiful rests upon an understanding of sexual difference in which the ‘masculine’ passions of self-preservation, which stem from ideas of terror, pain, and danger, are linked to the sublime, while the ‘feminine’ emotions of sympathy, tenderness, affection, and imitation are the preserve of the beautiful. The sublime amalgamates such conventionally masculine qualities as power, size, ambition, awe, and majesty; the beautiful collects the equally conventional feminine traits of softness, smallness, weakness, docility, delicacy, and timidity. The former always includes intimations of power, majesty, and brute male force—a storm at sea, a raging bull, a ruler or sovereign, greatness of dimension—while the latter connotes smallness, delicacy, and serenity. [Freeman, The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction (Univ. of California Press), 48]
I suspect what makes The Future in America such a wearying read is its commitment to this strenuous, Rooseveltian masculine-sublimity all the way through. Even the flaws in the America visited are sublime—vast and terrible and huge and so on: the prodigious poverty, the brute fact of racial disunity and so on. Almost nowhere is the novelist's trick deployed of individualising, complexifying or otherwise shrinking down the bigly-bigly rhetoric.

To be fair to Wells, that's not wholly true. There are some such moments, and I'm going to end with one. After troping the enormous RMS Carmania as, in effect, Progress and The Future, Wells lands, and takes to the US railways. And when he does so, it is the train that takes on the mantle of the Bigly-Sublime, embodying the future that America represents. This train is nothing like the shonky little trains Wells is used to in England. No, it is ‘large’, ‘fine’ and ‘graceful’:
“Progress, progress,” murmured the wheels, and I began to make this steady, swift, and shiningly equipped train a figure, just as I had made the Carmania a figure of that big onward sweep that is moving us all together. It was not a noisy train, after the English fashion, nor did the cars sway and jump after the habit of our lighter coaches, but the air was full of deep, triumphant rhythms. [The Future in America, 4:5]
‘Bigness—that's the word!’ Wells, cries, in a kind of narratorial ecstasy. But then the avatar of Progress suffers a hiccough:
“It goes on,” I said, “invincibly,” and even as the thought was in my head, the brakes set up a droning, a vibration ran through the train and we slowed and stopped. A minute passed, and then we rumbled softly back to a little trestle-bridge and stood there.

I got up, looked from the window, and then went to the platform at the end of the train. I found two men, a passenger and a colored parlor-car attendant. The former was on the bottom step of the car, the latter was supplying him with information.

“His head's still in the water,” he remarked.

“Whose head?” said I.

“A man we've killed,” said he. “We caught him in the trestle-bridge.”

I descended a step, craned over my fellow-passenger, and saw a little group standing curiously about the derelict thing that had been a living man three minutes before. It was now a crumpled, dark-stained blue blouse, a limply broken arm with hand askew, trousered legs that sprawled quaintly, and a pair of heavy boots, lying in the sunlit fresh grass by the water below the trestle-bridge.

A man on the line gave inadequate explanations. “He'd have been all right if he hadn't come over this side,” he said.

“Who was he?” said I.

“One of these Eyetalians on the line,” he said, and turned away. The train bristled now with a bunch of curiosity at every car end, and even windows were opened.

Presently it was intimated to us by a whistle and the hasty return of men to the cars that the incident had closed. We began to move forward again, crept up to speed. [The Future in America, 4:5]
The Bigly-Sublime rolls towards its inevitable American Future with impressive majesty and force, which is bad news for any actual human individuals that might get in its way. America as Juggernaut. More moments like this, and The Future in America would have been a markedly less inert book. ‘Eyetalian’ is a nice detail too: since Wells has ‘spent most of my daylight time in the fine and graceful open loggia at the end of the observation-car’, engaging in a kind of scopophilic engagement with the expanse of America: ‘in looking out of the windows, looking at hills and valleys, townships and quiet places, sudden busy industrial outbreaks about coalmine or metal, big undisciplined rivers that spread into swamp and lake, new forest growths.’ It's about talian eyes, and looking, and seeing, and the thing about the Sublime is that it is fundamentally too big to be visually apprehended. ‘I want over there to find whatever consciousness or vague consciousness of a common purpose there may be,’ Wells declares at the start of The Future in America: ‘what is their Vision, their American Utopia.’ [1:5] Vision, it seems, in collision with the Sublime, tends to come off the worse.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

In the Days of the Comet (1906)


This is minor Wells, if we're honest: a broken-backed twofer of social realism and utopian extrapolation. The novel's premise is simple: ‘one of the largest comets this world has ever seen’ [1.1.2] is on course to pass close by the Earth. The first of the novel's three sections describes its approach, from ‘a greenish-white apparition in the dark blue deeps ... brighter than the moon because it was smaller’ [1.2:7] to a huge phosphorescent presence in the night sky:
Its greenish white illumination banished the realities of day, diffused a bright ghostliness over all things. It changed the starless sky about it to an extraordinary deep blue, the profoundest color in the world, such as I have never seen before or since ... It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities. Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting—one could read small print in the glare. [Days of the Comet, 1.5.1]
But the narrator of the novel, Willie Leadford, is barely interested in the comet as it approaches, because his whole life is consumed by an unhappy love affair. Leadford narrates, looking back as an old man, with an unsparing eye for his youthful arrogance, anger and stupidity, as well as a careful descriptive attentiveness to the qualia of his lower-middle-class life. He is a clerk, sharing a rundown rented bedsit in the Potteries with his mother, and in love with beautiful Nettie Stuart, the daughter of the head gardener of a local upper-class widow, Mrs Verrall. But Leadford treats Nettie in a priggishly high-handed way, and she runs off with Mrs Verrall's young son, the handsome young aristocrat Edward Verrall. As the lovers do not plan to marry, this elopement causes a small scandal, but it is as nothing compared to the murderous rage that overwhelms Leadford. He steals some money, buys a pistol and goes after both Nettie and Verrall determined to kill them both.

As he tracks them down to their love-nest in the seaside resort of Shaphambury, war between Germany and Britain grows ever closer. The climax of Part One of the novel is set, with the comet looming brightly even in daylight, against the backdrop of a naval battle in the North Sea, visible from the beach at Shaphambury: the HMS Lord Warden and the German battleship Rother Adler both sink with the loss of thousands of lives. Leadford finally catches up with Nettie and Verrall and chases them across the seaside golf links, shooting his gun at them and missing, until the comet enters the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrates, spreading a soporific green mist over everything. Leadford sleeps and when he awake he and the entire world have changed for the better:
The whole world of living things had been overtaken by the same tide of insensibility; in an hour, at the touch of this new gas in the comet, the shiver of catalytic change had passed about the globe. They say it was the nitrogen of the air, the old azote, that in the twinkling of an eye was changed out of itself, and in an hour or so became a respirable gas, differing indeed from oxygen, but helping and sustaining its action, a bath of strength and healing for nerve and brain. I do not know the precise changes that occurred, nor the names our chemists give them, my work has carried me away from such things, only this I know—I and all men were renewed. [Days of the Comet, 2.1.1.]
And with this rather gloriously shameless handwave, Wells ushers in his Utopia. Leadford no longer wishes to kill, and can't remember why he ever did. Everyone has changed. The human faults that poisoned the world—which Wells boils down to variants of a cluster of related fundamental flaws, possessiveness, anger and pride—vanish. Over the remainder of the novel humankind pulls down the old world and rebuilds a more egalitarian, cleaner and more beautiful society. All the old housing stock is demolished, and new, improved communal living blocks erected; shoddy goods are destroyed and fine new gear supplied to all; war is a thing of the past, as is money, everyone has the opportunity for happiness and self-fulfilment and, if you'll excuse me sounding dismissive, so on, and so on, and so forth.

Part 2 sees Leadford embracing and blessing Nettie and Verrall, and apologising for trying to murder them. Nettie proposes he join them in a ménage à trois, but Leadford is not yet ready for such sexual latitude. Instead he becomes the private secretary of prominent politician Lord Melmount, whom he chanced upon out on the golf links. From this position Leadford is able to observe how the world is reconfigured after ‘the Change’, the world's politicians collaborating to facilitate the renewal. The novel lays all this out in numbing detail. Finally Part 3 returns to the question of the ménage à trois: Leadford cares for his elderly mother, and when she dies [Wells's own mother Sarah died 12th June 1905, as the novel was being drafted] he marries a woman called Anna Reeves and has a son with her. But his love for Nettie does not diminish, and four years later they meet up once more, whereupon Anna, he, Nettie and Verrall enter into a ménage à quatre.

The starkness of the difference between Part 1 and the linked Parts-2-and-3 has to do with more than content. Or more precisely, as the content plots a path ever further into the broad sunlit uplands of Wells's imagined future-world, the form of the novel sinks into a combined bathos of dullness and narrative lethargy. Before is a world of seedy compromise, frustration and anger, where After is a glorious utopia; which is another way of saying that Before is dramatically engaging and vivid and After fictively rootless and inert.

Following on from the academic speculation of Anticipations and Mankind in the Making, and the experiment in laminating narrative and utopian exposition of A Modern Utopia, Days of the Comet tries something different: a stark juxtaposition of two fundamentally different modes of text. I'd like to praise the boldness of this, and would, if the reading pleasure didn't decline so markedly once the comet has come. All changed, changed utterly, a terrible duty is born.


Comets have, as everybody knows, long been thought to presage disaster, or at least upheaval and change, in the mundane world. The idea that a comet might actually collide with the Earth is a more recent idea, dependent on the realisation that comets are not purely celestial signs, but rather material bodies orbiting the sun like the planets, moons and other asteroids, and therefore as liable to impact as any other solid object. Simon Schaffer dates this latter apprehension to the end of the eighteenth-century:
In 1773 the whole of Paris was terrified to learn that a leading astronomer of the Royal Academy of Sciences was seriously discussing whether a comet might crash into the Earth. In Normandy pregnant women suffered still-births; Voltaire wrote a satirical poem mocking those citizens who had fled the city in terror. This comet scare recurred 18 years later, during the middle of a more obviously terrifying revolution in France. We might recall the effect of Orson Welles’s broadcast of War of the Worlds in the 1930s, which brought New Yorkers out of their homes and scurrying across the Hudson into New Jersey.
Schaffer might have gone further: another comet scare alarmed the world in 1857—The Great Comet, Now Rapidly Approaching, Will It Strike the Earth? (1857) was only one of many pamphlets and articles it occasioned (that anonymously authored book subtitles itself ‘an Historical Philosophical and Prophetical Inquiry into the Probability of a Collision and the Consequent “End of All Things” at this Epoch of the World’s History’). And in 1874 Coggia's Comet passed within 40 million km of the earth (close!) and became, accordingly, very bright in the sky, with an enormous double-tail reported to stretch 60° across the night-time field of view. Anxieties were expressed that even if the comet missed the Earth its tail might sweep disastrously over us, which is the notion Wells himself takes up in Days. It was Coggia's comet that was the first to be subjected to spectroscopic analysis, another feature Wells draws on for his novel; and Wells insistence that his own comet has two tails may reflect the double-tail observed on Coggia (although Wells orients his two tails differently: ‘astronomers talked of its double tail, one preceding it and one trailing behind it, but these were foreshortened to nothing, so that it had rather the form of a bellying puff of luminous smoke with an intenser, brighter heart’ [1.3.3]).

That's an image from Sir Robert Stawell Ball's The Story of the Heavens (1893), and very attractive it is too. 1905, when Wells was writing, the return of Halley's comet, only five years away, was eagerly anticipated. Why do we get so het up over these objects? Well, Schaffer's point above, of course, is that the semiology of comets has been about social anxiety and upheaval since the memory of man goeth not to the contrary, but that a new materialist age needs to literalise that anxiety in terms of physical collision—the French Revolutionary context for the 1791 impact panic for instance.

Which is to say: modern comets figure as modern sorts of Revolution: and the ‘vapours’ it intermixes with Earth's atmosphere represent a sort of abdication of political agency as such, a deus ex machina short-circuiting of all the tedious business of actual reform. The old, old stumbling block for utopian thinkers is human nature itself, and previous utopias tended to argue either that human nature would slowly evolve into something better once the material conditions of existence had been sorted out, or else that human nature might not alter but an (often militaristic) reorganisation of society would better able to control and restrain our baser instincts, to everyone's mutual benefit. In the Days of the Comet fast-forwards the former approach, and its most radical innovation is also the ground of its weakness as a novel—because Wells construes all those failings in human nature as various iterations not only of possessiveness, but specifically of sexual possessiveness.

One problem with this is that Wells's post-Comet free love falls between too stools: too shocking for Wells's contemporaries, but too mealy-mouthed and tame for 21st-century sensibilities. We're entitled to wish Wells had had the courage of his convictions instead of having Leadford, in a patent sop to Edwardian sexual mores, piously repudiating the offer of sharing Nettie with Verrall. What happens in Part 3 is that Leadford goes back to care for his elderly mother, grieves her passing, marries Anna and has a son, and only then, having demonstrated the priority familial duty has over the promptings of his cock, does he change his mind and open himself to multiple sexual relations. But it is very odd that cometary vapours strong enough instantly to do away with his literally murderous erotic jealousy, were simultaneously too weak to dent his conventional sexual pudeur. ‘I thought of Nettie much,’ Leadford tells us, ‘and always movingly beautiful things restored me to her, all fine music, all pure deep color, all tender and solemn things. The stars were hers, and the mystery of moonlight; the sun she wore in her hair, powdered finely, beaten into gleams and threads of sunlight in the wisps and strands of her hair.’ [3.3.4.] Which is about as sexy as a Thomas Kinkade landscape. There are reasons for this, I think, which I discuss below.

Finally there is the book's epilogue, a sort of punchline to the whole novel that, as punchlines tend to do, demeans what has gone before. Wells stages a dialogue between a narratorial voice adopting 1905 sexual sensibilities and Leadford, now an old man, which results in a fatally hesitant sort-of affirmation of free love.
I felt a subtle embarrassment in putting the question that perplexed me. And yet it seemed so material to me I had to put it. “And did you—?” I asked. “Were you—lovers?”

His eyebrows rose. “Of course.”

“But your wife—?”

It was manifest he did not understand me.

I hesitated still more. I was perplexed by a conviction of baseness.

“But—” I began. “You remained lovers?”

“Yes.” I had grave doubts if I understood him. Or he me.

I made a still more courageous attempt. “And had Nettie no other lovers?”

“A beautiful woman like that! I know not how many loved beauty in her, nor what she found in others. But we four from that time were very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal lovers in a world of lovers.”


“There was Verrall.”

Then suddenly it came to me that the thoughts that stirred in my mind were sinister and base, that the queer suspicions, the coarseness and coarse jealousies of my old world were over and done for these more finely living souls. “You made,” I said, trying to be liberal minded, “a home together.” [Days of the Comet, ‘Epilogue’]
If this was designed to inoculate the book against scandal it failed: ‘in letting his obsession with polygamous relationships erupt openly into his fiction,’ Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie note, ‘H. G. was running a considerable risk.’ Various organisations dedicated to preserving public morals, including the YWCA, Salvation Army and ‘Anti-Vice and White Slavery’ campaigners took against the book, reviewers were haughty (‘Socialistic mens' wives, we gather,’ bloviated the Times Literary Supplement's book reviewer, ‘are, no less than their goods, to be held in common’) and the whole affair damaged Wells place in the Fabians. Hubert Bland (no acolyte of marital chastity in his own private life, of course) insisted that the Fabian public reputation would be badly damaged if it became associated with ‘Free Love’, and any such advocates might have to be expelled from the organisation: ‘we had to do that with the Anarchists,’ Bland wrote to Edward Pease on the 14th October 1906 after hearing Wells talk on the subject; ‘and we may have to do that with the Free Lovers.’ Four days later Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary:
In the Days of the Comet ends with a glowing anticipation of promiscuity in sexual relationships ... [but] H G Wells is, I believe, merely gambling with the idea of free love—throwing it out to see what sort of reception it gets—without responsibility for its effect on the character of the hearers. It is this recklessness that makes Sidney dislike him.
In the end In the Days of the Comet became neither a succès nor even a succès de scandale. Whilst it wasn't a complete flop (it went to a second printing before the year was out) its relative failure depressed Wells; Shaw wrote to friends noting his ‘moroseness and discontent’. Wells never tried this particular literary experiment again.


That's a shame, though: because, sex aside, there is something innovative in the make-up of Days of the Comet. And I must say I feel justified in putting the sex aside. This is a singularly unsexy novel, especially given that its vision of Utopia involves everyone becoming, in effect, a swinger. But when I put it like that you can see that I'm misrepresenting Wells's project. It is true that he sees utopian jouissance in erotic as well as sociopolitical terms, and indeed that is true of most of what he writes in the first decade of the 20th-century. But I think In the Days of the Comet styles sex less as intercourse and more as a kind of existential cleanness.

Part of this is the zeal of the recent convert to practical promiscuity, as Wells was at this time: the desire to assert forcefully that sex is not, as the prudes say it is, dirty. This, I think, is why Nettie is called Nettie; not (as Chris Fern argues) because she functions as a kind of ‘net’ or trap for Leadford; but on the contrary because Wells thinks her desire for him, and his for hers, clean.

But part of this is a more interesting interrogation of the correlation of property and (sexual) propriety. Leadford's murderous fury in Part 1 is entirely a function of his sense, shown throughout the novel to be both wrongheaded and pathological, that he owns Nettie. And the passage from grubby Before to Utopian After in the novel is marked by literal bonfires of vanities, the vanities in this case being the myriad shoddy items of personal property that define 20th-century us. This is the new ceremony of Beltane, the ‘ten great rubbish burnings that opened the new age’:
Young people nowadays can scarcely hope to imagine the enormous quantities of pure litter and useless accumulation with which we had to deal; had we not set aside a special day and season, the whole world would have been an incessant reek of small fires; and it was, I think, a happy idea to revive this ancient festival of the May and November burnings. ... Endless were the things we had to destroy in those great purgings. First, there were nearly all the houses and buildings of the old time. In the end we did not save in England one building in five thousand that was standing when the comet came. Year by year, as we made our homes afresh in accordance with the saner needs of our new social families, we swept away more and more of those horrible structures, the ancient residential houses, hastily built, without imagination, without beauty, without common honesty, without even comfort or convenience, in which the early twentieth century had sheltered until scarcely one remained; we saved nothing but what was beautiful or interesting out of all their gaunt and melancholy abundance. The actual houses, of course, we could not drag to our fires, but we brought all their ill-fitting deal doors, their dreadful window sashes, their servant-tormenting staircases, their dank, dark cupboards, the verminous papers from their scaly walls, their dust and dirt-sodden carpets, their ill-designed and yet pretentious tables and chairs, sideboards and chests of drawers, the old dirt-saturated books, their ornaments—their dirty, decayed, and altogether painful ornaments—amidst which I remember there were sometimes even stuffed dead birds!—we burnt them all. The paint-plastered woodwork, with coat above coat of nasty paint, that in particular blazed finely. I have already tried to give you an impression of old-world furniture, of Parload's bedroom, my mother's room, Mr. Gabbitas's sitting-room, but, thank Heaven! there is nothing in life now to convey the peculiar dinginess of it all. For one thing, there is no more imperfect combustion of coal going on everywhere, and no roadways like grassless open scars along the earth from which dust pours out perpetually. We burnt and destroyed most of our private buildings and all the woodwork, all our furniture, except a few score thousand pieces of distinct and intentional beauty, from which our present forms have developed, nearly all our hangings and carpets, and also we destroyed almost every scrap of old-world clothing. Only a few carefully disinfected types and vestiges of that remain now in our museums ... I have mentioned, I think, the part my own boots played in the squalid drama of my adolescence. I had a sense of unholy triumph over a fallen enemy when at last I found myself steering truck after truck of cheap boots and shoes (unsold stock from Swathinglea) to the run-off by the top of the Glanville blast furnaces. [Days of the Comet, 3.3.1]
This does have, I think, an uncomfortably Pol-Potian ‘Year Zero’ quality to a modern reader, but what I'm suggesting here is that it needs to be read as a conscious parallel to the passages with which the novel opens, and in which Leadford itemises in exhaustive, and -ing, detail the crappy things he used to own:
Let me describe this room to you in detail. It was perhaps eight feet by seven in area and rather higher than either of these dimensions; the ceiling was of plaster, cracked and bulging in places, gray with the soot of the lamp, and in one place discolored by a system of yellow and olive-green stains caused by the percolation of damp from above. The walls were covered with dun-colored paper, upon which had been printed in oblique reiteration a crimson shape, something of the nature of a curly ostrich feather, or an acanthus flower, that had in its less faded moments a sort of dingy gaiety. There were several big plaster-rimmed wounds in this, caused by Parload [the landlord]'s ineffectual attempts to get nails into the wall, whereby there might hang pictures. One nail had hit between two bricks and got home, and from this depended, sustained a little insecurely by frayed and knotted blind-cord, Parload's hanging bookshelves, planks painted over with a treacly blue enamel and further decorated by a fringe of pinked American cloth insecurely fixed by tacks. Below this was a little table that behaved with a mulish vindictiveness to any knee that was thrust beneath it suddenly; it was covered with a cloth whose pattern of red and black had been rendered less monotonous by the accidents of Parload's versatile ink bottle, and on it, leit motif of the whole, stood and stank the lamp. This lamp, you must understand, was of some whitish translucent substance that was neither china nor glass, it had a shade of the same substance, a shade that did not protect the eyes of a reader in any measure, and it seemed admirably adapted to bring into pitiless prominence the fact that, after the lamp's trimming, dust and paraffin had been smeared over its exterior with a reckless generosity.

The uneven floor boards of this apartment were covered with scratched enamel of chocolate hue, on which a small island of frayed carpet dimly blossomed in the dust and shadows.

There was a very small grate, made of cast-iron in one piece and painted buff, and a still smaller misfit of a cast-iron fender that confessed the gray stone of the hearth. No fire was laid, only a few scraps of torn paper and the bowl of a broken corn-cob pipe were visible behind the bars, and in the corner and rather thrust away was an angular japanned coal-box with a damaged hinge. It was the custom in those days to warm every room separately from a separate fireplace, more prolific of dirt than heat, and the rickety sash window, the small chimney, and the loose-fitting door were expected to organize the ventilation of the room among themselves without any further direction.

Parload's truckle bed hid its gray sheets beneath an old patchwork counterpane on one side of the room, and veiled his boxes and suchlike oddments, and invading the two corners of the window were an old whatnot and the washhandstand, on which were distributed the simple appliances of his toilet.

This washhandstand had been made of deal by some one with an excess of turnery appliances in a hurry, who had tried to distract attention from the rough economies of his workmanship by an arresting ornamentation of blobs and bulbs upon the joints and legs. Apparently the piece had then been placed in the hands of some person of infinite leisure equipped with a pot of ocherous paint, varnish, and a set of flexible combs. This person had first painted the article, then, I fancy, smeared it with varnish, and then sat down to work with the combs to streak and comb the varnish into a weird imitation of the grain of some nightmare timber. The washhandstand so made had evidently had a prolonged career of violent use, had been chipped, kicked, splintered, punched, stained, scorched, hammered, desiccated, damped, and defiled, had met indeed with almost every possible adventure except a conflagration or a scrubbing, until at last it had come to this high refuge of Parload's attic to sustain the simple requirements of Parload's personal cleanliness. There were, in chief, a basin and a jug of water and a slop-pail of tin, and, further, a piece of yellow soap in a tray, a tooth-brush, a rat-tailed shaving brush, one huckaback towel, and one or two other minor articles. In those days only very prosperous people had more than such an equipage, and it is to be remarked that every drop of water Parload used had to be carried by an unfortunate servant girl,—the “slavey,” Parload called her—up from the basement to the top of the house and subsequently down again. Already we begin to forget how modern an invention is personal cleanliness. It is a fact that Parload had never stripped for a swim in his life; never had a simultaneous bath all over his body since his childhood. Not one in fifty of us did in the days of which I am telling you.

A chest, also singularly grained and streaked, of two large and two small drawers, held Parload's reserve of garments, and pegs on the door carried his two hats and completed this inventory of a "bed-sitting-room" as I knew it before the Change. But I had forgotten—there was also a chair with a "squab" that apologized inadequately for the defects of its cane seat. I forgot that for the moment because I was sitting on the chair on the occasion that best begins this story. [Days of the Comet, 1.1.1.]
This clutter externalises and embodies all that must be swept away, destroyed by fire, for the new Utopia to come into being. Society must be de-propertied to become clean enough for the new order, and all these petty things are objets-petit-a to the grand A of sexual possessiveness. We need, Wells is saying, to break the habit of feeling possessive about things so that we break the habit of being possessive about people, because once we reach the latter condition we shall have Utopia.

We're entitled to doubt that last idea, I think; although I don't know—maybe there's something in it. Still: that lengthy passage from the opening chapter of the novel I just quoted points us down a more interesting avenue of interpretation than whether Wells's Utopian speculations were correct or not on the level of content: towards a reading that considers the form of this novel. This may be its most interesting aspect.

Look again at the passage: wallpaper and chairs and tables and slop-pails and toothbrushes and shaving paraphernalia, all minutely itemised. That particular textual strategy is drawn directly from the traditions of nineteenth-century Realist writing. It's the sort of thing that we find all the time in Zola's novels, for instance: Zolaesque; the novel offers great scads of closely observed and specific detail about the world, and thereby troweling-on a sort of thickness of verisimilitude (it’s one of the things Joyce parodies so nicely in Ulysses). One example from many: this passage from Chapter 3 of Zola's Le Ventre de Paris in which seafood is unloaded for sale at Les Halles:
The deep-lying forests of seaweed, in which the mysterious life of the ocean slumbers, seemed at one haul of the nets to have yielded up all they contained. There were cod, keeling, whiting, flounders, plaice, dabs, and other sorts of common fish of a dingy grey with whitish splotches; there were conger-eels, huge serpent-like creatures, with small black eyes and muddy, bluish skins, so slimy that they still seemed to be gliding along, yet alive. There were broad flat skate with pale undersides edged with a soft red, and superb backs bumpy with vertebrae, and marbled down to the tautly stretched ribs of their fins with splotches of cinnabar, intersected by streaks of the tint of Florentine bronze—a dark medley of colour suggestive of the hues of a toad or some poisonous flower. Then, too, there were hideous dog-fish, with round heads, widely-gaping mouths like those of Chinese idols, and short fins like bats' wings; fit monsters to keep yelping guard over the treasures of the ocean grottoes. And next came the finer fish, displayed singly on the osier trays; salmon that gleamed like chased silver, every scale seemingly outlined by a graving-tool on a polished metal surface; mullet with larger scales and coarser markings; large turbot and huge brill with firm flesh white like curdled milk; tunny-fish, smooth and glossy, like bags of blackish leather; and rounded bass, with widely gaping mouths which a soul too large for the body seemed to have rent asunder as it forced its way out amidst the stupefaction of death. And on all sides there were sole, brown and grey, in pairs; sand-eels, slim and stiff, like shavings of pewter; herrings, slightly twisted, with bleeding gills showing on their silver-worked skins; fat dories tinged with just a suspicion of carmine; burnished mackerel with green-streaked backs, and sides gleaming with ever-changing iridescence; and rosy gurnets with white bellies, their head towards the centre of the baskets and their tails radiating all around, so that they simulated some strange florescence splotched with pearly white and brilliant vermilion. There were rock mullet, too, with delicious flesh, flushed with the pinky tinge peculiar to the Cyprinus family; boxes of whiting with opaline reflections; and baskets of smelts—neat little baskets, pretty as those used for strawberries, and exhaling a strong scent of violets. And meantime the tiny black eyes of the shrimps dotted as with beads of jet their soft-toned mass of pink and grey; and spiny crawfish and lobsters striped with black, all still alive, raised a grating sound as they tried to crawl along with their broken claws.
In his recent The Antinomies of Realism (2013) Fredric Jameson discusses these sorts of great itemisations of things as ‘the new autonomization of the sensory’ which ‘here first emerges in Zola’; a particular moment in the later 19th-century when ‘the realm of the visual begins to separate from the verbal’ and ‘to float away in a new kind of autonomy’ [Jameson, 55]. Wells is doing something akin to this, by using the mass of textually described quotidiana as an index to a kind of low-rent reification of lived experience in order to destroy all such autonomization in a new Utopian mode of the authentic sensory life.

Now Jameson's book (which, incidentally, I discuss at length in this series of posts) positions its whole, wide-ranging argument on the distinction it establishes in its first chapter, ‘The Twin Sources of Realism: the Narrative Impulse’. Jameson distinguishes between récit and roman, the former a ‘tale, whose events are already over and done with before the telling of it can begin’, the latter defined via Sartre as re-establishing ‘the open present of freedom, the present of an open undecided future.’ [Jameson, 9] And that's quite a useful way of thinking of the relationship between the pre-comet and post-comet portions of Wells's novel: instead of choosing between between roman and récit it does both, associating the clogged dissociation of roman with the pre-Comet world and shifting register to a cleaner récit for the passages about Utopia.

I'm not pretending Wells's experiment works, exactly; but I do think it is an experiment worth undertaking. What tangles it, I suspect, is (to return to what I was saying earlier) the sex. Because howevermuch Wells thought he yearned for clean unencumbered sex—for, we might say, sex-as-récit—human beings are actually much more invested in the roman of their sex lives than they are in the mere mechanics of doing it. That roman may be cluttered, over-long, it may even be conflicted or buried or Henry-James-opaque, but that's still where we are invested, erotically and emotionally. It's also surely true that this sort of erotic sensibility connects with our understanding of time, narrativised or otherwise. In saying so I'm picking up from the way Jameson connects his two modes, récit and roman, to two particular modes of time:
... to distinguish two kinds of time, two systems of temporality, which will be the basis for the argument that follows. The distinction is one between a present of consciousness and a time, if not of succession or of chronology, then at least of the more familiar tripartite structure of past-present-future. [Jameson, 24]
It's not that Jameson thinks that ‘consciousness’ exists in some magic space outside past-present-future, but rather that there is an apprehension of time, accessible in art, that transcends the mundanity of clock-time, an open-ended expression of being that generates what Jameson calls affect: a feeling ‘nameless and unclassifiable’ [33] that is somatic (‘the senses are mobilised' [33]) although one which ‘seems to have no context, but to float above experience without causes’ [35]. Jameson aligns this with ‘impressionism and post-impressionism in painting, the Wagnerian revolution in music’ [42]. Old fashioned récit-based emotions are like Beethoven’s sonata form, he suggests; affect is like Wagner’s sonic chromatism.

Now, as I've argued elsewhere, this strikes me as largerly a matter of reinventing-the-wheel, a version of Frank Kermode’s ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’ from Sense of an Ending (1967)—and what a great book that is, always worth a re-read. So: chronos is Kermode's term for mundane time, ordinary time, time as one-thing-after-another; and kairos is his word for the right time, the special or transcendent moment, the Wordsworthian spot-of-time or Joycean intensity.

My point here is that the main reason sex matters to so many of us is because it gifts us moments of kairos in lives otherwise determined by chronos: the school run, the job, clocking on, clocking off, fifty weeks in the year. Nor would I wish to underestimate the importance of that. And it connects with Jameson's point about affect and Le Réalisme: Madame Bovary is an immeasurably sexier novel, after all, than anything by Smollett; Tolstoy's Natasha vastly more desirable than Richardson's Pamela. Human sexual desire cannot stand too much cleanness, is the truth of it. It's the old Woody Allen joke: ‘my analyst asked me if I thought sex was dirty. I told him: only if it's done right.’

The formal structure of this novel pulls hard against Wells's sexual utopia: because In the Days of the Comet, counter-intuitively, defines its pre-Comet dystopian world in terms of a kind of dark kairos of murderous quasi-erotic intensity, where the post-Comet world falls back into a bland chronos of logical improvements to human quality of life, and social cleanness and rational sexual openness. And when you think about it, that really is the wrong way about. In the Days of the Comet is a novel front-loaded with Jamesonian affect that shifts abruptly into a novel of chronos that drains away all kairos intensity at precisely the moment when the project of the book needs it most. It makes you want to say: Bertie, récit down, you're rocking the boat. Or not rocking it enough.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

In the Night of the Comet (2017)

In the Night of the Comet

A Sequel to H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet

1. How I Came to the Greenhouse

How I came to the Greenhouse is less of a mystery than how, or why, and whether advertently or not, I shut the Greenhouse door behind me after entering. That I did so is fortunate, no doubt—though it seems almost blasphemous to speak of good fortune in these latter days. All good fortune has vanished into the last night of humankind, and the only luck that remains us us poisoned. Still: here I am.

It has taken me several days to piece back together the torn-up fragments of my human mind, and several days more to resolve to write down what I can remember. For whom? I know not. But it is better to be occupied, most especially at night, when I interleave writing (by the light of the lavatory) with peering through the glass at the darkness without.

I do not intend to waste the little paper I possess on a detailed account of my early existence. My father, who recalled the years before the coming of the comet—before, that is, the coming of the first comet—spoke of the dark ages as dreadful but interesting, and contrasted them with the world remade into which I was born and in which I grew to manhood: a place of endless possibilities, sane and healthy and clean in ways that had never been true before in the whole history of humanity—yet, uninteresting, at least to a storyteller. The old stories, which the people of my generation read as historical curios, are full of incident, and drama, and conflict; and after the comet came all that dissolved away, and people lived together in harmony.

No longer.

More relevant to this story are my immediate memories of the coming of the second comet, and here I fear I shall disappoint, for it is hard for me to recall, and what I can recall is too horrific to be speakable. Suffice to say: I was a composer, among other things (as all our people distributed their energies into many things) and was overseeing the performance of an oratorio in the Great City of the Midlands. The second comet had been seen in the skies for many weeks, of course, and its arrival greatly anticipated. If the first comet had produced such miraculous changes in the ways of human society, then what might the second bring? I knew people who anticipated actual transcendence with the second comet: that our souls would sublime out of their mortal sheathes, that we should become as gods, or move to inhabit a purely spiritual dimension. Most took a more pragmatic line: there was no chance this second comet would pass as close to the Earth as the first, they said—the odds against a second close-approach, give the randomness of cosmic gravitational physics, were so vast as to be beneath notice. No: the consensus was that this second comet would miss the Earth by a wide space, and pass away on through the shoreless infinite.

Of course, we were wrong. It passed by as close as the first comet, and, as with that first comet, its tail mingled its gases with our atmosphere. The effect of this second encounter on the world, though, was quite different to the first. Whatever the ingredient that the first comet’s tail added to our collective atmosphere, this second comet brought something new, and it altered us all in quite another manner.

I cannot guess how long I was like the others. I think back to that time only with difficulty, and to do so requires me to overcome a profound sense of revulsion at what I did—at what I became. Perhaps it was a week: my clothes, though certainly torn and defiled with dirt, are not so decayed as would perhaps have been the case had the time-period been longer. I can recall a confused sense of purely animal drive—a bestial fear of the city, a bestial hunger for human flesh. My memory is a bewildering succession of stimuli that present themselves to me as having happened all at once, but must have involved chronological development. Fleeing the city with a dread deep in my stomach at that place—fleeing along with the thousands of human beings, leaving its electric lights and clean streets empty. Human beings? No, no. Human beings no longer. Dispersing, as all of humanity did, into the countryside—to copses and the shrubland, to woods and the deep forest. And here the chaos of memory is even hard to sort into logical succession: I was hunted by others, and fled in terror, prompted by an atavistic sense of self-preservation. I hunted others, and pursued them with a doggedness bred of a deeper sort of hunger than any I had felt before. In my mind as I think of it now, the two experiences are somehow the same experience—though of course they must have happened at different periods. I recall grappling with a larger individual, male or female I could not say, grappling for my very life, and escaping with gashes to my arm and neck that are still visible to me as I write. I recall hiding, panting, in shadow-tangled undergrowth beneath an indifferent moon. I recall tearing with my nails and biting with my teeth, chewing living human flesh with a terrible avidity. I recall how sweet it felt to have those juices wet my face, and how the screams of the victim added piquancy to the meal.

I do not recall why I came to the Greenhouse, but I daresay I was drawn by its illumination. The bright lights of the city repelled me—I know not why—as did the hideous solidity of the buildings, the artificial cañons of the streets, spires reaching up to prick the sky itself. All that filled me with a nameless terror, and I fled, as did we all. But there was something about the gleam of the lights from the Greenhouse, out on the edge of the woodland, that drew me. It was night, I think. The glass shone with a green-tinted glow that made me think not of the horrors of artificiality but of a new daylight. At any rate, like a moth I came, and smacked against the glass, and somehow found the door, and not only came through it but (mirabile!) closed it behind me. And here my human memories begin, like unto waking from a troubled sleep.

For a long time I lay. Eventually I was able to sit up. I tried to piece together where I was, and what my surroundings meant. I saw the ranks and ranks of growing plants and a tremor of the old terror passed through me, for these reminded me of city streets. I saw the tendrils of the tomato plants and the great globed scarlet fruit that depended from them, and—just for an instant—I saw giant skeleton fingers dropping vast droplets of blood. And then my sight adjusted, and I saw the dimensions of my sanctuary, and the blameless food being grown therein.

I tried to calm my breathing—to gather myself. But how widely scattered had been the pieces that once construed my consciousness and memory, my morals and humanity! It took a while. The hammering of my blood through my inner ear settled to a rhythmic slush, my heart caught hold of its gallop and slowed to a trot. The distinct hum, as the automatic machinery soothed me. The lights overhead fizzed faintly.

Out of the chaos of recent memory came a sense of myself as a person again—a man. A young man. The recollection of music returned to me, and the faces of my family, and with them a sense, as of a mode of memorious neuralgia, of the savagery I had been recently committing. Was the whole of humanity reduced abruptly to the level of unthinking cannibal brutes? Had the second comet truly affected such a change? It was nightmare to imagine it, and worse than nightmare to return to it in memory.

2. Life in the Greenhouse

After a while I returned enough to myself to be able to explore the facility. It was clean, and efficiently laid out, powered by one of the newer deigns of generators that our recent age of Utopian harmony had developed:—lit through the night to double the productive capacity. Automatic trimmers shaved overgrowth from the rims of the various tubs and beds, and a system of overhead rails indicated where the the automated punnets would run to effect the harvest. There were, nonetheless, signs everywhere of neglect—places where the lack of the hand of a human gardener was manifest, the want of this, the irregular presence of that, various spots of disease or other absence. How long had it been since a human being had walked these aisles? Weeks? Or months?

I found a toilet facility and examined my face in the mirror—filthy, chin blood-caked, hair a wild array—before washing and tending to my clothing as best I could. Exploring further disclosed the power plant, the chemical tanks that dosed the greenhouse air with this or that additive, and the filters. It was these latter, I assumed, that maintained the air inside at the same quality as the air before the coming of the second comet; or perhaps, I pondered (and I had a long time to ponder) some combination of filter, and the cancelling effect of some other chemicals, or combination thereof. I do not know.

What I do know is that when I tried to leave, I instantly felt the difference. Other greenhouses were visible through the wide glass, shining in the sunlight, and it did not take many days of habitation in my greenhouse for me to conceive the desire to explore them as well. My house grew tomatoes and peppers, and there were grasses and tubers growing in the soil to fertilise it that also were edible. But I began to crave variety, and wondered what other plants were in the other buildings. And so, like a fool, I went to the main door, and opened it, and peered across the distance from greenhouse to greenhouse as if I might sprint it. But at once I felt the difference in the air. I did not draw a lungful of the stuff—I only sniffed at it, as a dog might. But instantly I felt my core humanity dissolve, like a cube of sugar held between the fingers and dipped into the scalding circle of liquid at the tea-cup’s lip. It was as I imagine drunkenness must have been, in the days before the first comet came and cured humanity of such vices. The beast inside expanded, flowed down into my arms and legs, swelled my heart with a craving for raw flesh—with a hatred of the geometric shapes of the city and a yearning to roam the wildness and seek out my kind. My inner Grendel took possession of me, and I do believe that, had I not stumbled slightly as I held the door open, leaning inadvertently against it such that it swung smartly closed, I would have abandoned myself to that monster life again—gone out again into the world like a wolf to slay until I was slain.

After this small misadventure it took a half hour, by the greenhouse clock, for me fully to recover my humanity. It proved to me that I could not leave my sanctuary.

I cannot call it a prison. The design of the place included no overnight facilities for staff, but I was happy enough sleeping on a bed of folded tarpaulin. I was not cold, and indeed during the day the space grew tropical in its heat and I went naked. During the day the lights turned themselves off, and after two nights of uneasy sleep beneath the brightness of the night lights I sought out the control panel and turned them off at night as well.

It occurred to me that if I, in my former bestial state, had been drawn through the darkness by this gleaming arborial illumination then others of my kind might come afterwards, and for days I debated with myself concerning this possibility. Company would be most desirable, for I was soon acutely lonely; but would I survive the hour (let us say) it would take for an outside monster to be transformed, by breathing unadulterated air, into a companionable human being? On balance I decided not: the creature would kill and devour me before it could become again a man or woman.

Greenery curtained the windows on every side. I would part this and wipe the condensation from the glass to peer out. Indeed I spent long hours doing this, although I saw very little. The edge of the forest; the other greenhouses blazing through the night and sitting implacably during the day. Sometimes I saw animals—antelope, foxes, many birds—and twice I saw other humans, if the wraiths I saw could be so described. Ragged, bestial, one running using the heels of his hands as a gorilla might, the other pursuing on his hind legs. Through the glass I watched them, and over the hum of the machinery, I could clearly hear their howls and yelps, though they passed two hundred yards away. The denouement of this chase was, mercifully, obscured from me by bushes and undergrowth, although the rising intensity of howling, the shrieking and rending noises, suggested that the hunter had been successful.

I thought long and miserably about cosmic cruelty—the hideous arbitrariness of events, the monstrous injustice, the incalculable waste of human potential and beauty. Mankind had struggled through imperfect social structures for thousands of years, painstakingly raising itself from savagery, and erecting at last a pyramid, rotten, mostly crushing and oppressive, inefficient and often cruel. And then the first comet had come, and in an instant everything had changed—humanity had, for the first time, lost its selfish and competitive sickness, and had come together. Out of the ramshackle edifices and unplanned cities of the past we remade glorious and enduring monuments, glorious conurbations, drawn on the untapped potential of the species to advance science and technology. And now this second comet had come, and all that was cast onto the waste-heap of posterity, blasted and destroyed. How could it be? How was it fair?

But this was childish of me: for no obligation is laid upon the universe at large to be fair. Such was not the logic by which the planets orbit a star, or galaxies spin their millennial wheels. Had I believed in a God, as humanity did in the dark ages before, I might have railed against Him for His capriciousness. But all such superstition had passed from the world after the first comet came. There was no meaning to it. The dice of Reality had rolled and come up doubled-six, and now had rolled again—snake eyes I believe the phrase to be.

At night I would lie and listen. Beyond the hum of the machinery I could sometimes hear: rain stroking its million particles of freshness across the roof like unceasing applause. The hoots and moans of birds. From time to time the shrieking and howling of human beings—of what had once been human beings, bellowing like wolves. The French word loup is much more evocative of this sound than the English one. Long leashes of sound.

When I first came to the greenhouse I heard these ghastly sounds often; but the longer I stayed the less frequent they became.

Man preyed on man. Say (and as a musician I had, of course, been trained in mathematics) the population halved each night: all men Grendels chasing down and murdering their fellows, but out of each fighting pair only one survivor. Some hunts would be unsuccessful which would reduce the fraction below a half—but then again, I thought, some hunts would lead to fights in which both parties died, and that would bring the numbers back up. So: estimate a one half reduction each night. How many nights before the billions of human beings that populated our globe shrank to a mere handful? And, as I remembered from my own experience: without the intellect to care for themselves, and craving no food except other human flesh, those few left over by the cull would soon starve.

Soon, I calculated, I would be the only human left alive.

Then again, if I had stumbled into a sanctuary, then surely some others would too. But what could we do? To leave the greenhouse would be tantamount to putting a noose round my neck and leaping into the void. I spent a few days examining the machinery that maintained the greenhouse, to see if I might construct a radio and search the aether for other survivors: but I did not possess the necessary components, and was wary of tinkering too profoundly for fear of upsetting the automation that was preserving my life. And what good would it have done? A few scattered survivors, bleating their loneliness at one another across the waste and unforgiving curvature of a depopulation world? Better, surely, to stay as I was. Better perhaps just to die.

3. I Explore the Other Greenhouses

I subsisted on tomatoes and peppers, growing swiftly sick of them and craving something more proteinous—I chewed some of the green peaks of the grassier weeds, hoping they would be in some degree or another akin to wheat, though they were little alike. It was little enough, and played havoc with my digestion, turning my stool to slurry, but there was no helping it. There were some few insects in the Greenhouse with me (although not many, for my Utopian society had succeeded in growing plants naturally resistant to predation by the all insects and most segmentata) and there were, of course, worms to be dug out of the soil. For a long time I held out against the idea of eating such abject food, but eventually, my body craving something that my diet was not providing, I did. It was hardly pleasant, and that prompted me to think again of essaying some bold voyage of discovery to the other Greenhouses. Perhaps they had in them crops of potatoes!—how my mouth watered at the thought of such fare. Perhaps carrots! Cabbages, who knew?

The sounds of human depravity and cannibal savagery had so far diminished during my nights that I began to think the human world had by now deleted itself from the pages of all history—falling each upon each other’s necks, mauling and killing.

I resolved to do it. It was evident that covering the fifty yards between my greenhouse and its nearest neighbour could only be effected if I took not the merest sniff of the general global air. I did not think, as in retrospect I clearly should have done, what would have been the case had I arrived to find the second Greenhouse’s air filtration faulty. At any rate I prepared for my dash by practising holding my breath, hyperventilating to fill my blood with air (and marveling at how quickly I grew dizzy, and how long my held-breath lasted, in that oxygen-rich environment) and then sprinting up and down the aisles of my domicile. When I felt confident in my ability to cover ground without drawing breath, as per the game of kabaddhi poplar in my youth, I filled my lungs as deep as possible, clamped hand over mouth and stepped outside.

I took pains to close the door behind me, lest I needed to return, and then ran in a steady lope over the intervening ground to the next greenhouse. I was inside before I felt any urgent need to breathe again, and congratulated myself on what I had achieved. Alas, the crop in this new building was all tomatoes and red peppers too, and with the flush of success still on me I resolved immediately to run to the next Greenhouse.

This was also tomatoes and peppers, and so was the next one along, and I had almost decided to give up this game of chasing and scrambling from door to door if the next house were the same again when I noticed some new heavy fruit dangling down on a long creeper at the far end of the building in which I had just arrived. Intrigued I went down the aisle, approaching the strange and pendulous object. So little did I expect what I found that it was only when I came within the last few feet that I realised what it was.

The body of a man, hanging by its neck, its arms at its side. Its tongue was out, huge and dark, like an untucked shirt-tail, and its eyes were black as asphalt.

I started back, my terror less rational than it was superstitious and instinctual. And now that I understood what I was seeing I could smell the sickly odour of his flesh beginning to turn to putrefaction. I stepped back again, stumbled into the side of the aisle and fell backwards onto the tomato beds.

There was something hanging from the hanging man, a fold of paper tied with thread and attached to his tunic by a fastener. I picked myself up, stepped forward, took hold of this and retrieved it. Call me fool, or child, but I could not read this missive standing close beside the hanging corpse: I retreated to the furthest distant point the Greenhouse permitted me, sat on the ground, and read.

4. What the Letter Said

I know not, the letter said, who might read this; nor do I have hopes that any will. But suicide according to the old pre-Comet customs—so long superseded and done away with—called, the surviving literature from that time suggest, for a note, and having no other pressing duties to prevent me writing something, I am content to produce one,

When the second comet came and reversed all the goodness that had been worked by the first, there were three of us in this Greenhouse, having worked our way along from site to site. Our duties completed, and all unwitting of the change that had been effected without, Gaston and Hetheridge went before me to walk on to the next facility, I staying behind upon some trifling matter of maintenance. This being completed, I walked to the exit door, and was stopped by hearing a strange noise of scuffle and distress, a bestial commotion of raised voices. Looking through the glass walls I saw, with a horror and disgust I cannot put into words, Hetheridge murdering Gaston, tearing chunks of flesh from his still living body in a spray of blood and loud dissonant howls of pain—and all the time, Gaston struggling and biting at his adversary, attempting to do the same to him. When Hetheridge had finished his hideous, Bosch-like and infernal assault, and Gaston lay lifeless on the ground, he turned, saw my face through the glass and ran directly at me as a rabid dog might—wholly unrealising, it seemed, that a transparent barrier stood between us. He collided against the glass wall with tremendous force, and fell back temporarily stunned. And now the worst portion of the entire horrifying episode—for Gaston was not dead, only mauled and dismembered in the most distressing way. Heedless of his terrible injury, he dragged himself over the turf until he reached the fallen body of Hetheridge and—I shudder to write the words—tore the supine body’s throat out with his bare teeth like a wolf. He feasted for a short time, but his own wounds were too extreme, and eventually he too lay still.

I shrank from the window, hid in the lavatory as the only place of refuge that occurred to me. I was shaking with terror and with a kind of profound revulsion. I knew immediately that something dire had happened—I knew this was more than merely a sudden and coincidental psychotic aberration. I gathered myself to test my knowledge, for such is the essence of the scientist—but opening the front door of the greenhouse by the merest crack, and sniffing the air outside only a little, all but collapsed my mind into bestial savagery. The first comet had altered our atmosphere, and made us better people. This second comet had evidently altered it again and made us much, much worse.

And you, whoever you are, reading my final testimony—there is one thing it is most important you understand: my partner, and the love of my life, is as astronomer. She monitored the coming of the first comet (although in those bad old days the fact that she was a women excluded her from the best equipment and professional astronomical positions). She has monitored the coming of this second one. She told me many times that the prodigious benignity of that original comet’s arrival rendered us curiously incurious about its provenance. Why interrogate such a question, when its coming had proved so beneficial to us all? Or, she whispered to me, was that one avenue of incuriousness
also part of the admixture of chemicals, the neurological or genetic defabrictors, or whatever the agent was that so changed the world? She grew suspicious. “We must not call it comet”, she said to me. “Comets, we now know, are balls of dirty ice, their tails the blasting of sublimed water vapour under the pressure emitted by the solar wind—blowing those tails back like windsocks. The comet that changed our world was a much more gaseous nebula, and it possessed two tails, a fact of which many are unaware since neither could be seen, because both were foreshortened as we looked up at the phenomenon: one was trailing directly towards us, and the other trailing directly away. But as my partner says, no comet ever observed has manifested such a thing.

I said to her: and what does this tell you about the comet—the comet that you say I should not call comet?

And she replied: that these tails are not being blown back by the solar wind, but rather emitted from the object itself.

And I said: but what does
that mean?

And she said: only that the object is being
steered towards us. The jet projected from the far side of the object is its propellant, and its orientation must mean that the object has been directly aimed at us. The jet angled towards us is an equal but opposite jet-force, designed to slow the object during its final approach.

As she said
aimed the whole truth of the matter came clattering home to me. This first comet, as we called it, was sent by intelligences—doubtless intelligences greater than ours, though surely as mortal, and alien—implacably other and alien. My love and I discussed often why these mysterious extramundials should have been moved to act as such notable benefactors to humanity. It was her good nature that spoke in her theory, that superior evolutionary advancement must lead to superior ethical wisdom and kindness. She monitored the coming of the second comet and speculated what new virtue it would bring to humankind.

And now we see the truth.

I have pondered long, in my lonely sojourn here, as to their motivations—those They, faceless and mysterious creatures of the outer cosmic wastes. This is my conclusion: that they sent the first comet (for so I still call it) to alter us so that we should cleanse the world, and improve it. So that we should tear down our shanties and slums and rebuild gleaming cities of light and splendour. So that we should mop up our pollutions and beautify again the wild spaces of the planet. And when we had done all these things, and rendered our planet a paradise—why, then they sent the second comet, and again altered us, such that in a short space we should retreat to the woodlands and tear ourselves, literally, bloodily, to pieces. And afterwards they will come and take possession of the beautiful homes and fine facilities, and walk the levelly and cleanly paved streets, and breath the sweet air, and enjoy this world as theirs, that we have prepared for them.

Infinitely less laborious for them, such a stratagem, than fitting-out our world themselves. By tweaking out minds with a carefully prepared cocktail of neurological activators, they handle us—as a beekeeper handles bees to steal their honey. And now They want us out of the way, disposed of, removed, such that they can come here and occupy the world they covet, unmolested by its aboriginal population.

As for me—I have spent the last few days watching furtively through the windows of this Greenhouse, and seeing, from time to time, what humanity has been reduced to: feral monsters tearing one at another with their very teeth. I have seen this carnage happen, in among the trees and on the edge of the forest, with my own eyes. And the worst of it is I know that my beloved is now such a beast—if, indeed, she still lives, which is unlikely. And
that is the knowledge, more than anything, that propels me to this action. If another human being reads this, then I beg you: pity me. And if one of the Others discovers and deciphers it, makes some sense from what must be, to Them, alien sigils and hieroglyphs, then I only say: the people whose brains you poisoned, first to make them build a better world, and then to make them murder one another and leave it blank for your coming—those creatures were living and feeling and thinking beings, each one a whole universe of love and hope, and you have annihilated them with remote and cruel wickedness. I only pray that Cosmic Providence bring some Karma upon—but I lack even the energy to write a sentence motivated by resentment and despair, and grounded in no truth. It is enough, Or too much. Goodbye.

3. They Come

I could not stay in that corpse-hung place. I fled, holding my breath, to the next greenhouse along, and sat, the sight and stench of where I had come from lingering with me. And the strangest thing of all is that—for a time—I felt a sensation akin to relief. I can hardly explain it, except that perhaps it speaks to the sense that what I had taken to be mere random cosmic ill-luck was revealed as having purpose behind it, and that human beings are so constituted as to find purpose, even an evil purpose, more bearable than pure randomness.

But despair soon threatened me again. I took the dead man’s stylo and, now, in this place, I have found some paper and over the last few days I have written this brief account of my time. And all the while the image of his motionless dangling body has hovered before me, urging me like the Nightmare Life-in-Death, to imitate his desperate action and end my life.

I shall never leave this place.

At night I put out the lights, no longer because I fear I might attract the attention of feral humanity, for surely now all human beings on the planet are dead; but so as to allow me to see more clearly through the glass. I watch the skies, night after night. When I began, in my fit-and-start manner, to write this account there was little enough to see, but clouds, and the moon, and the immemorial spread of bright stardots against the velvet cold. But latterly there have been motions in the firmament. Three days ago I would have called these motions meteors, or aurorae, or perhaps some magnetic atmospheric manifestation. Tonight, though, as I sit in the lavatory, writing these words by the light of this room, it is clear what these lights are. I watched moments ago, and as I watched they coalesced into structures, and those structures sank through the darkness towards the Earth. I saw a great palace of brightness, coloured white and shining green with an undertint of glowing deep blue—saw it descend and settle onto the ground over behind the wood.

They are here—and—