Category Archives: The Comet

Elevators, Escalators, and Asymmetries of Power

Having power is fraught with difficulties of its own.

It’s not easy being the Dark Lord.

“I wouldn’t sleep with you if you were the last man on…wait, where is everyone?”

This post was written partially in response to jaycrede’s post and more generally in defense of authors who take certain liberties when writing science fiction.

I agree with jaycrede. That a comet’s deadly gases (do they even emit deadly gases?) could permeate through the atmosphere in such a concentrated way as to devastate a single city seems highly improbable. (Then again, it is an island.) Neighboring New Jersey should have been hit too, but it probably wouldn’t have had much of an impact; the good citizens of the Garden State are all too used to smelly gases (as anyone who has had the misfortune of driving through the northern end of the turnpike can attest). But I digress.

What I find even more incredible is that, in a city of several million inhabitants, only two managed to survive. If being in a darkroom was all it took to avoid the effects of the gas, I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people cocooned in the nooks and crannies throughout the Big Apple would have also been protected.

We can go on and on about how unscientific “The Comet” is. But if we’re really looking for inaccuracies, improbabilities, and logical insanity, we need to look no further than Frankenstein and Who Goes There? You have to suspend your disbelief pret-ty high to buy that a scientist could stitch up body parts and bring it to life or that scientists will uncover a shape-shifting alien with psychic powers in the South Pole. I’d like to see Campbell scientifically explain that one.

But that isn’t really the point of SF is it?

As far as I can tell, SF is really good at artificially creating a situation where the character(s) (and the reader) can see the world in a totally different way. I think a character’s response to his milieu  is what’s important, not how his world came to be in the first place. In the case of “The Comet,” the unlikely death of what appears to be the entire world allows the two protagonists to see each other—past all the webs of meaning humans have spun for themselves—as simply individuals. As jaycrede notes:

When their worlds collide, they see each other as human beings first before remembering their differences.  Despite their diversities, the two strangers band together under the belief that they might be the last two humans alive.  Escaping to the roof of the Metropolitan Tower, they seemingly rise above the color of skin and expectations of class.

I think we’re in total agreement until he writes:

Even with the story’s heavy-handed afterschool-special tone, I liked the social commentary and contrast between the two characters.  That is until the “Honk! Honk!” of a car horn changed the characters’ loneliness and my attitude.  Instead of a romantic “we’ll survive and build a new society” ending, it turns out that everyone outside of New York is still alive!  What a load of crap!

In my opinion, Du Bois’s decision to have Julia’s father and fiancé come up the elevator was important to the story–scientific plausibility be damned. The connection Jim and Julia shared was real. But the bond, however genuine, was impermanent. In the end it was not enough to overcome racism. Through an impossible phenomenon, Du Bois showed readers at the time a momentary glimpse into a world that could be–heavenly, divine–before cutting it short like so much babel.

It was only a dream.

What’s important is that Du Bois brought us back to earth so that we could make it a reality.