W. E. B. DuBois, "The Comet", Darkwater, 1920.
Reprinted in Dark Matter: The Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction by Black Writers, edited by Sheree Thomas and Martin Simmons (2000).
It's not my habit to read nor review short stories. They are, as it says on the tin, a tad too short. Nonetheless, I really wanted to read "The Comet", which is not only considered as a scifi classic but also written by one of the earliest Black American scifi writers. I wasn't disappointed.
First story in my series of reviews for stories written before 1978.
Jim is a lowly employee at a bank. He is sent down to the vault to complete a task where the door suddenly closes on him. When he finally emerges from the vault, everyone in the bank, everyone in the street, is dead. He will only find another person who is alive: a white woman. But he is a black man.
DuBois was a sociologist and civil rights activist. "The Comet", one of his few fiction works, was originally published in a collection of essays and poems. As such, it is obviously a work of fiction that claims its metaphorical nature within an ensemble that aims to educate about racial discrimination in America. More than that, it can be read as a parable, with a plague of biblical proportion, the comet, and an Adam and an Eve in a New York full of corpses. The short story is full of symbolism, which has been extensively studied in many interesting academic studies.
Obviously, the racial discrimination is at the heart of the short story. The divide between Jim and Julia, the white woman and other survivor, is not only a racial one, but also one of class, Julia being a rich heiress.
The racial dynamics in the short story are extremely interesting and expose the hypocrisy at the heart of them: think you're the only two survivors in the world, and suddenly realise your common humanity! But, like an elastic, discrimination always comes back to slap your fingers.
The ending adds both a bitter and a sweet note: bitter in how the elastic comes back, sweet because despite it all, there is some consolation.
"The Comet" is a very early scifi novel and the science in it isn't exactly (to put it mildly) accurate. But it's more of a pretext for a rational explanation to the situation rather than "and then everybody just died". By being a scientific explanation, it also adds a touch of futurism, something that came from the stars. There are no ancient powers, no mysticism, no magic: instead there are banks, and cars, and a comet. DuBois aims to write a story fully into the modern era and to place Black people in it. In this, he truly is one of the founders of Afrofuturism.
To the modern reader, "The Comet" may lack some character development. But the writing is often brilliant, particularly when Jim roams the streets of New York in search of another survivor.
It's a short story that will, of course, be of interest to anyone interested in the classics and in the history of scifi. And, obviously, it will be of interest to anyone interested in how racial issues are discussed within scifi and fantasy stories.
But beyond that, "The Comet", a story which is now 98 years old, remains an incredibly modern and engaging short story that I recommend to everyone.
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