Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Coming Race

Edward Bulwer-Lytton The Coming Race (1871)
The Coming Race was hardly the first science-fiction novel to  rummage around within a hollow Earth. Journey to the Center of the Earth - to name but one of many - was published seven years earlier, and the general conceit probably goes back at least so far as Don Quixote's descent into the Caves of Montesinos in Cervantes' 1615 novel. The Coming Race would nevertheless appear to represent a seminal work of its type, and its popularity was once such as to seed public imagination with vril, the novel's mysterious energy source falling somewhere between nuclear power, electricity, telepathy, and the force from Star Wars. Mastery of vril is the reason for the technological superiority of that lot down there, as Bulwer-Lytton explained, inadvertently inspiring numerous occult types - Madam Blavatsky for one - seemingly ranging from those regarding vril as a metaphor for some existing esoteric force, to those apparently taking The Coming Race for fact disguised as fiction. Of the latter group one might arguably include Richard S. Shaver whose peculiar subterranean ramblings might be deemed heir to Bulwer-Lytton were they not so obviously sourced from a more personal, psychological mania, and vril seems to have become a totem for some of the weirder expressions of Nazism. Weirder still, at least to me, is that the name of Bovril, the popular pseudo-Marmitic English meat based drink derives from the idea of vril as life enhancing.

Anyway, before we go too far down that particular rabbit hole, it should be noted that Bulwer-Lytton's novel belongs more significantly to the utopian tradition, but taps into subterranean folk myth to a greater extent than others of its kind. The underworld as hell, if not uniquely Christian, seems to have been the exception to a general global rule. Most underworlds were traditionally a source of life, development, culture and so on, with the world as a metaphorical womb giving birth to the people and all which sustains them. This basic idea is found in Norse mythology, Sumer, Mexico, and pretty much everywhere else to greater or lesser degrees. Bulwer-Lytton's utopia is therefore home to a more developed race than our own, although the precise details of the warning delivered appear fairly loosely defined, or at least they did to me. Unfortunately I have a feeling this may be down to my own prejudices, specifically that which I expect to have been the sort of thing that would have mattered to a Victorian author of Bulwer-Lytton's credentials.

The Coming Race references ancient deluges in terms which suggest scientific foundations in the sort of catastrophism which squared fairly well with the emerging ideas of Darwinian evolution. Yet, whilst the novel appears to embrace Darwin up to a point, the Vril-ya - this being the name of the coming race in question - claim descent from frogs, which reads somewhat like a Christian parody of Darwin, not a million miles from the sort of critique asking where amongst its relatives was the orang-outang to be found. On the other hand, there's also the strong possibility that the supposed war between Church and Darwin has become somewhat exaggerated in recent times by the usual tub-thumping bores on both sides, and may not have been quite such a partisan affair as we have been led to believe. I suspect Bulwer-Lytton may not have given a great deal of thought to those aspects of his narrative which, with hindsight, seem as though they should be making some more strident observation, for he seems to find no contradiction in evolution discussed with such frequent references made to faith, and is more likely presenting a warning of the notion of progress as a virtue in itself. Progress was hardly a new idea in 1871, but the developed, or at least developing world was clearly still coming to terms with the idea of progress as something which could achieve such momentum as it did in the 1800s, and which had begun to reach into every aspect of modern life. Even humanity, so it seemed, was subject to progress, hence the disturbing possibility of more advanced expressions of humanity who might come to regard us as we did the less technologically orientated colonial subjects of the empire. Supermen and their mighty works would become popular during the century to come, notably with a great many folks who also enjoyed shouting and wearing uniforms, so it is interesting and possibly ironic on some level that Bulwer-Lytton describes the racial characteristics of the Vril-ya as close to Native American type, presumably by virtue of their having been the least understood ethnic group to have achieved levels of civilisation comparable to those of classical antiquity at the time of writing. Happily, the utopia of The Coming Race therefore constitutes relatively slim pickings for nutcases seeking Aryan material, excepting I suppose a few of the more obsessive Death In June types who could probably find some sort of ariosophic subtext in an episode of Dora the Explorer.

Established expressions of bullshit aside, The Coming Race is a fairly straightforward prompt towards the conclusion implied by Victorian notions of progress, that we might not necessarily be the pinnacle of God's creation, and that this is worth keeping in mind. Oddly I find this echoes Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in that it too makes a lesson of the perils of ideology becoming too far divorced from the reality it endeavours to inform, which is of course the big problem with most versions of utopia. I personally found this one a little more readable than Crime and Punishment, although I can see why it has failed to remain quite so popular as at least a few of its contemporaries, lacking as it does the wit and verve of Verne, Wells, Shelley and others - not a bad novel by any stretch, but one that was quite definitively of its time; and although I'm sceptical that Bulwer-Lytton can really have been said to have predicted nuclear energy, the appearance of robots in a novel published in 1871 is not unimpressive.

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