Wednesday, May 27, 2020
The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells
Rip Van Winkle’s class war
English author H. G. Wells is best known as one of the fathers of science fiction, but he was also a passionate socialist who wrote many works of social criticism. On more than a few occasions he merged both interests into novels and stories of future utopian and dystopian societies. One such Wells novel, When the Sleeper Wakes, was originally published in 1899. Wells later released a revised version in 1910 under the title of The Sleeper Awakes. It is this latter edition that I am reviewing, though I don’t believe the two versions differ significantly in plot.
Like many futuristic novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The Sleeper Awakes features a present-day hero who unexpectedly finds himself in the world of the future. The mode of time displacement that Wells relies on in this case is the sleeper scenario from the old folktale of Rip Van Winkle. An Englishman named Graham falls into a coma and wakes up 203 years later in the year 2100, not having aged a bit. One interesting (though rather nonsensical) twist that Wells gives to this old chestnut is that Graham’s financial investments have been compounding for two centuries, making him the richest man in the world. In fact, he literally owns the world. The human race recognizes him as the Master of the World and has eagerly awaited the day he would awake to take his throne. For his own protection, however, Graham’s handlers keep him on a tight leash until he can acclimate himself to the new world order.
It soon becomes apparent that the committee of trustees who has been managing Graham’s affairs for two centuries have set themselves up as a tyrannical oligarchy, known as the White Council, who govern the world with an iron hand. When word gets out of Graham’s awakening, a revolution erupts. He is freed by a group of rebels under the leadership of a man named Ostrog. As these two warring factions reign destruction on each other with futuristic weapons, Graham is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of war. Knocked about in all directions by the frenzied mobs, he finds himself lost amid the war-torn streets of London.
Wells deliberately makes the battle scenes chaotic and disorienting, with the result that it’s often difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. Equally confusing is the fact that very few of the characters have names. Most are simply referred to as “the man in black,” “the man in yellow,” etc. This futuristic society has a color-coded system of apparel based on class. The oligarchy wears white and the laborers light blue, but I could never get a bearing on what the various other hues were supposed to stand for. The novel’s most cringeworthy color category is the Black Police—literally, black police—stormtroopers imported from Africa to rain hell on “poor white trash” (Wells actually uses that phrase). Wells rather blatantly and bigotedly implies that their very blackness brings with it a heightened degree of barbarity and cruelty.
All the uprisings, coups, and carnage leave almost no time for Wells to explain what these people are actually rebelling against. The reader has to wait until chapter 20 (out of 25) to get the political, economic, and social overview that usually comprises the bulk of utopian or dystopian novels. Considering Wells was such a staunch socialist, it’s surprising that there’s really only one chapter that focuses on the plight of the working class. For the most part, The Sleeper Awakes reads like an adventure that Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard might have written, and not a particularly good one. The racism certainly doesn’t help. If it’s a dystopian novel of socialist revolution you’re looking for, there is none better than Jack London’s The Iron Heel.
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