Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Coming Race.
Until recently, scholars interested in reading Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871) might well have encountered some difficulty in locating the novel. While, as David Seed notes in the introduction to this new edition, "it has stayed in print largely because of its continuing appeal in mystical and theosophical circles" (lii), the publications of New Age presses have not ranked high in the priorities of library purchasing departments. Also, the continuing association of this work with Nazi mysticism may have obscured its importance to the history of science fiction. While Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) maintained a lifelong fascination with spiritualism and the occult, and that interest certainly finds expression in the text, the book is also significant as a utopian novel, a hollow earth story, a critique of late nineteenth-century gender politics and imperialism, an exploration of Darwinian evolution, and one of the first and most important texts in the revival and expansion of science fiction in late nineteenth-century Britain. Broadview addressed the lack of an accessible text with its 2002 edition introduced by Brian Aldiss, but Wesleyan, continuing the excellence of its Early Classics of Science Fiction series, has now provided a solid edition with full scholarly apparatus, including an extensive historical introduction by David Seed, detailed textual notes, an appendix with an earlier subterranean world by Bulwer-Lytton, and a thorough bibliography.
The Coming Race tells the story of a young American who, while exploring a British mineshaft, discovers a subterranean civilization far more advanced technologically, socially, and biologically than anything on the surface. The Vril-ya have automata for servants and mechanical wings for personal flight, and the apparently limitless power supply of vril: "I should call it electricity, except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, &c." (26). Vril is not just physical energy, but mental and spiritual energy. It can influence the weather, act as a weapon, modify thoughts and feelings, and induce healing, all channeled through a tool called the Vril Staff. Through the power of vril, the superior underground beings have eliminated all crime and political dissent, achieving an enlightened state that blends elements of democracy and aristocracy, as well as radically different gender roles. over many years, they have also evolved alongside their use of vril to become taller, stronger, and more intelligent than humanity.
The narrator's response to this seeming utopia changes over the course of the novel. First he approaches the Vril-ya with instinctive reverence that easily shades into fear. Once they establish communication with him, his reverence becomes admiration and a longing to join their perfect society. Gradually, however, he becomes critical of their power and values as well as increasingly aware that he cannot ever participate in their society--he is biologically incapable of controlling vril or the Vril staff, and is thus permanently excluded and inferior. As an exotic and primitive specimen, the narrator draws unwelcome female attention which raises the specter of miscegenation and provokes a harsh response from his hosts. He eventually flees for his life, escaping to the surface with a dire warning "of a people calmly developing [...] powers surpassing our most disciplined modes of force, and virtues to which our life, social and political, becomes antagonistic in proportion as our civilization advances [...] our inevitable destroyers" (144).
Fascinating as the novel itself remains, this edition by David Seed does far more than simply make the text available to scholars. Indeed, the novel takes up only about half the pages of the book. The rest are devoted to the extensive and invaluable apparatus that provides a wealth of literary, biographical, and historical context for reading the novel, and an argument for the importance of this text both to its time and to the history of science fiction. The themes covered in the short novel range widely, and Seed's introduction provides a concise map to the author's interests as well as to the cultural influences at work. Seed first sketches the novel's literary context by examining its utopianism, Gothicism, and use of the sublime to darken its science-fictional predictions. Seed then explores the novel's scientific interests, particularly its development of Darwin's competitive model of evolutionary struggle and "racial displacement" (xxiii) and the application of Max Muller's evolutionary philology to broaden the Darwinian argument into the realm of societal and social development as well. The female-dominated society, which inverts traditional gender roles, demonstrates many of the anxieties surrounding the New Woman, including both the appeal of strong and independent women as well as the fear that female empowerment has "infantilized and then reduced [the narrator] in the species hierarchy to carnivorous animal" (xxx).
Muller's philology inevitably leads to a discussion of the novel's Aryanism, and Seed is particularly insightful in drawing out the novel's complication of Aryan supremacy, "balancing evolutionary optimism against the gloomier implications of the 'last man' theme" (xxxiii). Still, the remainder of the introduction focuses on how the novel's celebration of an Aryan "coming race" and occult fascination with the mysterious vril, which "draws together technological, biological, and psychic factors" (xl), combine in theosophy to become the novel's most lasting and destructive influence. "The revival of occultism in Germany produced new editions of Bulwer-Lytton's works, and ultimately The Coming Race was appropriated by a number of secret organizations in Germany in their formulation of an ideology of Ariosophy, a fusion of Aryan race doctrine, Nordic mythology and Theosophy" (xliii). Seed carefully notes, however, that we oversimplify if we read the novel as the primary source of Nazi ideology, as well as if we assume that Nazism was the only thing it influenced. The novel influenced H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw as well as Adolf Hitler.
Both the breadth of the coverage in the introduction and the care with which it addresses the nuances of Bulwer-Lytton's text are great strengths. The breadth does have its drawbacks, however, as Seed jumps from topic to topic trying to cover them all. For example, the consideration of literary context is interrupted by a section on "Automata and the Loss of Individualism" (xvii-xviii). While it highlights another important theme, its placement between "Utopian Themes" (xv-xvii) and "The Coming Race as a Gothic Novel" (xviii-xx) seems arbitrary. Likewise, the penultimate section, "Underground Worlds and the Hollow Earth" (xlvii-lii) provides a useful history of the hollow earth story type and the novel's place in that tradition, but it seems isolated from the rest of the introduction. The overall effect is of a series of loosely connected takes on the novel rather than a fully integrated reading. I found myself longing for an index, since the loose structure makes locating specific information less intuitive than in a more structured argument. Still, the purpose of an introduction is to introduce the material, not provide a definitive reading, and this is a comparatively minor criticism.
The remainder of the book's apparatus is equally useful and comprehensive. The appendix, "Bulwer-Lytton's First Underworld" (145-154) excerpts passages from Bulwer-Lytton's 1832-1833 serial "Asmodeus at Large" which indicate the genesis of many of the ideas and images he developed nearly forty years later in The Coming Race. The textual notes identify obscure allusions that resonate strongly with the novel's themes, such as the opening paragraph's echoes of Mary Shelley's The Last Man (161, n. 1). They also cross-reference Bulwer-Lytton's published works and letters and draw connections to later works, such as Wells's The Time Machine (163, n. 2), which show evidence of the novel's influence. The bibliography (187-207) covers not only Bulwer-Lytton's works and the various editions of The Coming Race, but also secondary sources on both Bulwer-Lytton and the hollow earth tradition. The ten-page author's biography maintains this comprehensive depth.
David Seed has produced a definitive edition of this important novel. It belongs on the shelves of research libraries not only as a contribution to the history of science fiction and utopian writing, but also to the history of the late Victorian period. Because it is now an affordable paperback (list price $13.95), scholars of early science fiction should seriously consider investing in a copy of their own. The volume and quality of the contextual material also make this an ideal classroom edition for use in a course on the history of science fiction or a topical course on utopia, evolution, gender, or the occult.
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|Author:||Fuller, Sarah Canfield|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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