I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.
—H.G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet (1906)
So begins one of the lesser known science-fiction novels by the prolific author of The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and many other works. It’s an account of the great upheaval following a comet strike into Earth’s atmosphere that chemically alters the composition of the air and precipitates a transformation of mankind.
It is this passage that has been racing around my brain for the last few weeks: “The old life seems so cut off from the new, so alien and so unreasonable, that at times I find it bordering upon the incredible.”
Is there a better description of what the world is simultaneously experiencing in the plague year of 2020? The first week of March, it was still possible to believe that the coronavirus epidemic was something we needed to be careful with, but not overreact to. I took my UCLA class out for dinner to conclude our Winter quarter together on that Thursday night, and went out to dinner with friends Friday night where we dutifully, but playfully, tapped elbows to say goodnight. As we were leaving, our waiter extended his hand, and after only the slightest hesitation, I gave him a firm handshake. It would be the last handshake I have given anyone for nearly three weeks.
Barely a week later, confirmed cases were skyrocketing around the world, and restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters, and clubs were ordered closed. Hordes of panic-buying customers emptied supermarket shelves of toilet paper, paper towels, Kleenex and bleach, and ordinary hand sanitizer was suddenly being auctioned on eBay.
And now: much of the national economy is on voluntary or compulsory shut-down, the tourism, travel, and hospitality industries are functionally dead, the stock market has crashed, the number of confirmed cases globally has more than quadrupled, and the number of deaths quintupled, in just over the last two weeks. The toll will be much higher by the time you read this.
Superficially, life goes on. My wife and I are dutifully staying safer at home, where we have mostly been working from for the past several years, so it’s not quite the hardship and disruption it might otherwise be. The groceries now are reasonably stocked (including toilet paper), and we’ve been enjoying cooking at home. There is no shortage of books and home entertainment. When we do have to go out, there is less street traffic than there has been since the 1984 Olympics, and perhaps even before that, and the air is undeniably cleaner. We go for walks in the neighborhood under glorious blue skies filled with puffy clouds. Less happily, our son’s graduate school plans are abruptly on hold, the gym where he’d been working part-time is closed, and unable to visit his friends, the poor kid’s practically bouncing off the walls.
But this is the surface normality of the Twilight Zone. Everything seems so placid and beautiful because nobody’s around; they’re fearfully locked away in their homes or garbed in masks and gloves when they cautiously venture out. The economy functionally is at a standstill, and unemployment rates are rocketing up, projected to reach unheard-of Great Depression levels.
At this writing, despite an anticipated $2 trillion “stimulus” legislative package, the market closed up by more than 11% today yet still was off by 30% of its 2020 high, deep in bear-market territory with a recession lurking just around the corner if it’s not already here. I have resolved not to check our retirement account balances for at least six months because I don’t want to have a stroke.
Our entire world is suddenly, literally, living out the plot of every bad sci-fi apocalypse tale. In a strange way, having first encountered it through fiction makes it a bit easier to experience in real life. Works like Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague,” Daniel DeFoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year,” and George Stewart’s “Earth Abides,” and films like “Outbreak” and more recently, “Contagion”—it’s oddly comforting to be able to say, “I’ve read this book and seen this movie already. I know what happens, and I know what to do.”
That doesn’t really make living through the apocalypse any easier, and there’s no guaranteed Hollywood ending. It’s truly nauseating to contemplate the scale of the financial wreckage, even if we escape the holocaust of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—which infected 500 million people, a third of the world’s population, and killed at least 50 million, a mortality rate roughly 100 times that of our seasonal flu. How my friends and former colleagues in government are coping with it, I can’t begin to imagine.
In Wells’s novel, which has never been adapted for film, there actually is a happy ending: the comet strike remakes Earth’s biosphere and ushers in a new era of peaceful worldwide cooperation, casting aside the suffocating Victorian social conventions, and what quaintly used to be called “free love,” then reigns in a kind of Dionysian paradise.
It’s not Wells at his best, but it’s an interesting compendium of his chief preoccupations: global catastrophism, an end to war, a better socialist world, and plenty of recreational sex.
Set aside our economic collapse, and that could almost be a presidential campaign platform for this cursed, cursed election year.