I know that my reviews of these older, public domain books are never as well received as the comics or some of the more well-known books that I read, but one of my big goals for the Read a Damn Book project is to expose folks to things they might not otherwise hear about. In this case, I’m looking at an early science-fiction / fantasy story by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The Coming Race was published in 1871 and it was hugely popular in its day---and then things got a bit WEIRD…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Edward Bulwer-Lytton – The Coming Race (1871)
Although he’s somewhat forgotten today, known mostly for his famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” (and few people remember who actually wrote these words), in his lifetime, Edward Bulwer-Lytton made a ton of money off of his written work AND (according to Wikipedia) he was also a politician with a great deal of influence. Despite all this, I didn’t know who he was until I started hearing him mentioned on podcasts that enjoy, like Archaeological Fantasies and Monster Talk---usually mentioned in conjunction with Theosophy or some occult ideology. (The most recent show to name-drop Bulwer-Lytton was an episode of Monster Talk called, “Hitler’s Monsters,” which mentions how The Coming Race might have influenced Nazi ideology!) The book was also name dropped in David Bowie’s classic song, “Oh! You Pretty Things,” (one of my favorites,) which I NOW know was probably inspired pretty heavily by the Bulwer-Lytton story. So, with such a pedigree, I decided I’d better read the book, and luckily it’s in the public domain, so it was free to download for me electro-reader.
The only problem is---it didn’t really like the book.
It’s got a lot of interesting stuff going on, and the author is more than competent---at certain points in the book I found it quite engaging---but (at the risk of spoiling the work for everybody) this story is a CLASSIC case of “telling” instead of “showing.” As far as PLOT goes, almost NOTHING HAPPENS for the majority of the tale…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story opens with a brief introduction by a first-person narrator, who gives a quick encapsulation of how he became independently wealthy, then immediately jumps into a recitation about how the narrator (I never caught a name---and I’m not really interested enough to look it up) was invited by an “engineer acquaintance” to explore a cavern that was discovered deep inside of a mine. This early section of the book is very well written, has a couple of surprises, and leads the reader to believe they are about to be thrown into a very cool---chilling even---world similar to Robert Howard’s Conan stories or some Edgar Rice Burroughs’ underground adventure….but after this brief section, the book just STOPS DEAD in its tracks. For the next 80 percent of the story (I’m not exaggerating; my Kindle gives a “percentage read” stat at the bottom of the screen,) the reader is presented with a thorough (and rather dull) anthropological report on the lives, politics, language, religion, farming, energy production, gender roles, etc., of the underground dwellers that the narrator encounters, and who are described in very angelic language, below the Earth’s crust. It’s weird and tedious and unnecessary to know every factor of the lives of a people who (again, sorry for the spoiler) never do a goddam thing in the entire book!
I haven't done enough research about the era or the author to know if this was some elaborate satire aimed at a specific country or group of people---or if the book was a form of radical political pamphleteering couched in a fictional setting---or if it was just TERRIBLE storytelling, but apparently this book was massively popular when it came out!
There ARE a number of interesting elements to the underground society that the narrator describes, so I'll give the author credit for a strong imagination. For one thing, they have robots that run around doing most of the mundane chores, so that the citizens have little to no need to perform manual labor. Of course, these machines aren’t called “robots” because this book came out in 1871, and the word “robot” wasn’t coined until 1920---when Karel Chapek published the play, R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robotics (which I’m going to review in the near future.) In addition to the “automatons” running around doing all the work, the citizens of the underground domain wear mechanical wings that allow them to fly, the females have most of the social power, the leaders of society tend NOT to want to rule, but do so out of a sense of duty and for the good of the people, and everyone seems to be happy and content.
The other interesting aspect of life amongst the “Ana” (the name the underground folk call themselves) is how infused it is with an element called “vril,” which permeates every aspect of their lives. Here, on page 27, we get a feel for how important vril is to the Ana:
“These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of vril, which Faraday would perhaps call ‘atmospheric magnetism,’ they can influence the variations in temperature---in plain words, the weather; that by operations akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, &c., but applied scientifically, through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics.”
Vril has changed and enhanced their society, and their bodies, in such drastic ways that it makes the mere humans on the surface seem like primitive animals. More than anything else, vril reminds me of the way Vibranium is infused in and influences everything in Wakanda in the Black Panther universe. The element is used to elongate the lifespan, allows the Ana to build undefeatable weapons (which are mostly used by children to kill dangerous creatures that come too near cities), and has numerous other super-science / mystical effects. STRANGELY, according to sources like Monster Talk, after this novel came out, some folks started to believe that there might actually BE a substance like vril. The Nazi’s, apparently, were particularly moved by this book---which (in a very uncomfortable section to read) mentions that the Ana were probably descendants of the Aryan race that were forced underground around the time of the biblical flood.
The narrator for this book is also particularly problematic to me. In one section, in which he is fantasizing about being made King of the Ana, his true disposition is revealed. He is pro-war, pro-colonialism, seems to think murdering groups of people that he deems intellectually inferior is just fine, and he imagines how he would bring various improvements from European culture to the genetically hearty but ideologically weak Ana. (Again, I don’t know if this was supposed to be satire or if the narrator was just an asshole---or if the author was. It’s tough to say without doing more research---which I’m not that interested in doing...)
My final thoughts on The Coming Race: I don’t think I’d recommend this book for most people to read. I was an anthropology major---and I STILL found Bulwer-Lytton’s detailed breakdown of Ana life to be a bit dull. The book has some crisp writing in it, particularly at the beginning---and a little at the end---but most of the “story” is static. Nothing happens---it’s all exposition. Each “chapter” is just a shallow excuse for the narrator to explore another piece of the Ana’s culture, and far too many pages are dedicated to this examination without any ACTION or plot movement to keep a (modern?) reader entertained. It’s funny that Bulwer-Lytton introduced so many interesting IDEAS in this book but did so in such a tedious and unengaging way. The book MIGHT be interesting for people who are fans of esoteric and/or magical ideologies, however, considering the fact that this “novel” had such a large impact on certain groups, like the Theosophists. For my money, though, the 1800s produced a great many OTHER books that were far more entertaining and engaging---so unless you’re a literary scholar or are deeply interested in Western esotericism---I’d recommend passing on this one… (If you have a DIFFERENT opinion of the book than what I expressed here, feel free to share it. I’m always happy to listen to well-reasoned dissent!)
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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