Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, was one of the big guns of Victorian literature. His books were bestsellers and he garnered considerable critical acclaim as well. And yet today he is not merely mostly unread, he has become a byword by bad writing, with a literary competition for bad writing named after him.

This is partly because he was unwise enough to start one of his stories with the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” It is also because he was a master of what the painter James McNeill Whistler described as the gentle art of making enemies. He also dabbled in politics, with considerable success, but the fact that he gained election to Parliament on more than one occasion as the representative of more than one party doubtless added to his already impressive list of enemies.

All of this is quite unfair. Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most interesting of all Victorian popular novelists. He attempted a multiplicity of genres, all with considerable success. His horror story The Haunters and the Haunted is rightly regarded by connoisseurs of 19th century horror as a classic. He wrote adventure stories, romances, historical fiction and novels of the occult. And in 1871 he penned one of the classics of 19th century science fiction, The Coming Race.

An American mining engineer exploring a particularly deep shaft discovers an entire world the existence of which had never been suspected. This is the world of the ana.

The ana are human. More or less. They are at the same time both very much like us, and very different.

Bulwer-Lytton has little interest in telling a tale of adventure. His agenda is satire. What makes it interesting is that he satirises both his own world and that of the Ana. It is neither a simple utopia nor a simple dystopia, but a bit of both. The hero grows to both like and fear the Ana.

The Ana have discovered the secret of Vril. Or at least the more highly developed societies of the Ana the Vril-ya, have. Think of Vril as the Holy Grail of both medieval alchemists and 21st century physicists and you’ve got the general drift. The powers of Vril are almost unlimited. Both its useful life-giving properties and its immense destructive potential.

The Vril-ya have progressed far beyond any human society inhabiting the surface of the globe. They have long since abandoned such barbaric practices as democracy. War and social strife are unknown. Class hatred is equally unknown. On the other hand one of the reasons that war is unknown is that the Vril-ya mercilessly destroy anything they perceive as a potential threat to peace and happiness. Including other races that don’t share their enthusiasm for peace and happiness.

The society of the Vril-ya has another special feature. The sex roles are more or less reversed. Women are the dominant gender, and women take the active role in courtship.

Bulwer-Lytton avoids simplistic conclusions. He approves of the much higher status that women enjoy in this subterranean world, but he is aware that a simple reversal of roles will not solve all problems. He paints the Vril-ya as being admirable in many ways, but dangerous in the way that those who are convinced they are right are always dangerous.

This is a fine example of 19th century science fiction used as a vehicle for speculation about the future of social organisation rather than technology. Bulwer-Lytton is too interesting an author to be allowed to be forgotten.

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