Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Coming Race by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

A boring utopia, unless you’re a theosophist
The Coming Race is a utopian novel by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who, in addition to being a prolific writer, was also a politician who at one time held the post of Secretary of State for the Colonies of the United Kingdom. Published in 1871, the book tells the story of an American narrator who visits a friend who works as a mining engineer. In the process of granting the American traveler a tour of the mine at which he is employed, the engineer falls to his death, thus leaving the narrator alone at the bottom of the mine. Deep beneath the earth, he stumbles upon a subterranean civilization. The inhabitants of this world are not human, but rather a species of beings more advanced than our own, both evolutionarily and scientifically.

These beings, collectively dubbed the Vril-ya, are humanoid but more attractive, smooth, and hairless than we, in some respects resembling popular conceptions of angels. In fact, most of the Vril-ya have wings, albeit mechanical ones, which they use as a mode of transportation. These beings seemed to have evolved from a tribe of humans who descended into the earth long ago, but at one point a very odd theory is discussed at length asserting that the Vril-ya are descended from frogs as we are descended from apes, which accounts for their attractive near-hairlessness. Regardless of their origin, they have lived separate from the surface dwellers for millennia. Their underground world is illuminated by a combination of powered lights and natural phosphorescence.

The name of the Vril-ya arises from their ability to wield a mysterious power called Vril, a fictional ethereal substance that sounds like a mix of atomic energy and the Force from Star Wars. The Vril-ya use Vril to power their technology, destroy their enemies, and telekinetically move objects. The manipulation of Vril has solved many of the scientific problems that face humans of the surface world. The children of the race perform most of their society’s labor while the adults live languid lives of repose. Unfortunately, this excess of leisure makes the Vril-ya quite boring as subjects of science fiction. I enjoy classic utopian novels of all stripes, regardless of ideology or credibility, but I found very little to grab my attention and hold my interest in this rather lackadaisical depiction of an ideal society.

The one interesting aspect of the Vril-ya that sets them apart from our species is that the females are larger and more powerful than the males. In opposition to Victorian mores, in Vril-ya society the women are the sexual aggressors and the proposers of marriage, while the men are expected to be coquettish. This puts the narrator in an odd position when he is pursued by some females of the species. In fact, the entire latter half of the book deals mostly with the narrator’s interspecies love life, which has little to do with utopia but is slightly more entertaining than the book’s first half.

Though I didn’t much care for this novel, it was quite popular in its day. Some readers, mainly those who followed theosophist beliefs, actually viewed this book as a work of nonfiction. At least one Vril Society was rumored to have been established by occultists searching for Vril. For the rest of us, however, The Coming Race is just a utopian novel, and unfortunately, it’s a rather boring one. Those who choose to read it should do so out of historical curiosity and not in the expectation of much literary merit.

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