Thursday, February 11, 2016

In the Days of the Comet - Jules Verne

It's been years since I read any Jules Verne. In fact, if you don't count the Illustrated Classics, I think the only actual book of his I might have read is the sequel he did to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, which was, junior high, maybe? For a dollar, this seemed worth a try.

A comet heads right towards Earth, and strikes the planet. The Earth is not destroyed, because the comet just spreads a greenish mist over the world, and everyone collapses for a few hours (so some people die because they fall facefirst into soup, or they were driving at the time, or in surgery). When people wake up, they're different. They still have a lot of the same ideas and feelings, but they can recognize all their more toxic impulses that were holding them back. Resentment, selfishness, greed, hate, fear, all that stuff. And since everyone can see this now, everyone agrees to work together and they make a better, freer, world, or something to that effect.

I think I was expecting something different, more akin to 20,000 Leagues or Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the comet would hit, and the world would be changed in very obvious physical ways. Strange new animals and plants, stuff like that. Not that the world would become some utopian, free love paradise. Because Verne focuses a fair amount on that. How in this new world, it is perfectly fine to love more than one person romantically, and to be open in your feelings about one person you love to another, and everyone is cool with that, and just want each other to be happy, so everybody just loves each other. He doesn't really address what happens if it only runs one way, though.

Also, he spends the first 60% of the book on the world prior to the arrival of the comet, mostly on the life of the main character Willie Leadford, who is mostly obsessed with the fact a young woman he was in love with, and who had agreed to marry him (though neither had discussed this with their families), had fallen for another man. A man of property and social status, and Willie is already bitter and angry about his lot in life and the income disparity that exists in their world. He spends a significant portion of the book hunting down the two lovers so as to kill them. That got extremely tedious after a very short time.

I'm not so sure about this great new world the author describes, either. He talks about how everyone just agrees to tear basically all the homes, all the factories, the railway lines, and then essentially start over. And people will mostly live in tents until then. And everyone decides there's a lot of junk cluttering things up, so they just burn it all. Burn leather boots, burn furniture, smashed marble statues into useful lime, burned paintings, burned books. Because it's all just useless trash, right? Generally speaking, when your society decides burning books is a good idea, I'm inclined to think it's a stupid, shitty society (he says they saved a few things, the classics, however that's defined, but there was probably some good stuff unappreciated in its time they destroyed). The basic idea seems to be, people will never go back to being like they were when they created those things, so we don't need them. There's nothing to learn from history, because the comet's put something in the air that will always keep people in this honest, open state. Which seems a dubious line of reasoning to me.

And I wonder what would happen to someone who was content to be alone, in their own place. Because certainly there should be some people like that. Before the change, Willie loved Nettie, and he still did after the change. The difference was, after he could see how he was trying to possess her all to himself (as he says society teaches men to try and do), and he couldn't get over that and his own hang-ups and bitterness about his lot in life. Now he can, and he still loves her, but he realizes that it's fine if she or he love other people, too. So there must be some people that were content alone before, and find after the comet they're still content alone. maybe it was originally motivated by fear, but they find they like it. Are they left alone? What if the great new society decides they need the land where that person lives? Are they right back to kicking people out for some "the greater good"?

There are some very nice ideas in the book, and it's more than a little depressing that the societal ills and class issues Verne talks about are, if anything, even more pronounced today than they were 110 years ago when this was originally published. But there are some aspects of his vision I can't quite go with, perhaps because they get a relatively short shrift so he can focus overmuch on Willie's issues.

'I perceive that I was an evil-tempered, ill-disposed youth with a great capacity for hatred, but -

There was an excuse for hate.

It was wrong of me to hate individuals, to be rude, harsh, or vindictive to this person or that, but indeed it would have been equally wrong to have taken the manifest offer life made me, without resentment.'

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