I’ve described the work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) before. He was a highly prolific author who was highly influential in a number of fields, although his overly romantic prose is often ridiculed these days. Nevertheless, Bulwer-Lytton’s work survives to this day, and he has written a number of classic horror stories as well as the Titanic of his day: The Last Days of Pompeii, which I discussed in detail in this post.
Bulwer-Lytton also left his mark on science fiction, in his very odd novel The Coming Race (1871). The story, about the narrator’s journey deep beneath the surface of the earth, where he encounters a powerful utopian society, is one of the earliest science fiction novels. I can’t say it’s the most compelling book I’ve ever read, but it is fascinating from a historical perspective and bad science perspective. Let’s take a look…
The narrator of the story (who remains anonymous throughout) describes a visit to see a friend who works as a mine engineer. The engineer, exploring a natural chasm that was breached by a new exploratory mine shaft, discovers what seems to be signs of sentient life deep below the earth. Fearful, he returns without going further, but the narrator convinces him to return, and the next day the two of them descend into the depths and use a rope to climb the remaining distance to the ground of what seems to be a street.
Disaster strikes! The narrator descends safely, but the rope comes loose as the engineer descends, and he suffers a fatal head wound from the fall. Immediately afterwards, a monstrous lizard-like denizen of the depths chases the narrator away, who finds he must seek safety in the hands of the natives of the land.
Alas, I’ve just described most of the exciting scenes in the book! The narrator (who comes to be known as Tish) enters the care of the society of Vril-ya, and much of the remainder of the book comsists of his descriptions of the people and their history, society and technology.
The Vril-ya are a race of humans that fled beneath the earth’s surface to survive a massive flood. Curiously, this flood is suggested to predate the biblical flood:
Whether this be a record of our historical and sacred Deluge, or of some earlier one conteded for by geologists, I do not pretend to conjecture; though, according to the chronology of this people as compared with that of Newton, it must have been many thousands of years before the time of Noah.
Numerous animals also fled underground, resulting in a completely distinct ecosystem which includes the monstrous Krek which first threatened ‘Tish’.
The Vril-ya have a utopian society, where crime and violence have been almost completely eliminated. The civilization is split into a collection of more or less independent states, and when a community grows too large a number of its members willingly depart and form a new one. The overall political theory governing all of the Vril-ya is a ‘benevolent autocracy’, run by an elected supreme magistrate known as a Tur. Otherwise, communities have agreed upon their own rules and customs:
There were customs and regulations to compliance with which, for several ages, the people had tacitly habituated themselves; or if in any instance an individual felt such compliance hard, he quitted the community and went elsewhere. There was, in fact, quietly established amid this state, much the same compact that is found in our private families, in which we virtually say to any independent grown-up member of the family whom we receive to entertain, “Stay or go, according as our habits and regulations suit or displease you.” But though there were no laws such as we call laws, no race above ground is so law-obvserving.
Women (Gy-ei) have a fascinatingly important role in the society. As noted by the narrator,
Gy-ei are in the fullest enjoyment of all the rights of equality with males, for which certain philosophers above ground contend.
All arts and vocations allotted to the one sex are open to the other, and the Gy-ei arrogate to themselves a superiority in all those abstruse and mystical branches of reasoning, for which they say the Ana are unfitted by a duller sobriety of understanding, or the routine of their matter-of-fact occupations, just as young ladies in our own world constitute themselves authorities in the subtlest points of theological doctrine, for which few men, actively engaged in worldly training in gymnastic exercises, or to their constitutional organization, the Gy-ei are usually superior to the Ana in physical strength (an important element in the consideration and maintenance of female rights).
The perfect example of this is the daughter of the narrator’s host, Zee, who is a professor in the College of Sages and one of the most learned members of the society. She also serves as a guide to the narrator, which becomes an issue later in the story.
But this wouldn’t be a science-fiction story, even an early one, without really kewl technology! The technology of the Vril-ya is based on a remarkable, mysterious from of energy known as Vril:
“What is the vril?” I asked.
Therewith Zee began to enter into an explanation of which I understood very little, for there is no word in any language I know which is an exact synonym for 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, etc.
Bulwer-Lytton is in essence espousing a ‘unified field theory‘ in which all of the forces of nature are manifestations of some fundamental unifying force. Bulwer-Lytton apparently gleaned this idea from Michael Faraday, whom he quotes in the book:
“I have long held an opinion,” says that illustrious experimentalist, “almost amounting to a conviction, in common, I believe, with many others lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest, have one common origin; or, in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent that they are convertible, as it were into one another, and possess equivalents of power in their action.”
This quotation is from Faraday’s 1845 Bakerian Lecture. Faraday was hugely influential in demonstrating the connection between electricity and magnetism. He demonstrated what is now known as Faraday’s Law: the observation that a changing magnetic field induces an electric field. He was also responsible for demonstrating that electricity generated by different means — static, batteries, bioelectric — are manifestations of the same electric force (I assume that this is what the above quotation is referring to, though I was unable to acquire the complete text to confirm this). In 1850 he even wrote a paper titled, “On the possible relation of gravity and electricity”! Of course, Faraday was unaware in his time of the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the proposed unification of those forces with electromagnetism and gravity would exceed Faraday’s wildest dreams. (I should note that, so far, the weak force has been shown to be related to the electromagnetic force, resulting in electroweak theory.)
The ‘vril force’ is, in essence, a limitless source of energy which the Vril-ya have tapped for all their needs. It is used for healing, as well as for communication: at the beginning of the novel, Zee learns the English language through Vril-powered telepathy. Beyond psychic powers, many of the other staples of science fiction are present, thanks to the power of Vril:
1. Ray-guns: Vril can be channeled through the use of a Vril Staff, a tool that can be used for healing or destruction:
It is hollow, and has in the handle several stops, keys or springs by which its force can be altered, modified, or directed — so that by one process it destroys, by another it heals — by one it can rend the rock, by another disperse the vapour — by one it effects bodies, by another it can exercise a certain influence over minds. It is usually carried in the convenient size of a walking-staff, but it has slides by which it can be lengthened or shortened at will. When used for special purposes, the upper part rests in the hollow of the palm with the fore and middle fingers protruded.
Vril is used for destruction only on rare occasions, and typically to subdue beasts such as the aforementioned Krek. In fact, the ability of most citizens to wreak city-wide devastation has resulted in the most of humanity’s hostilities:
As these effects became familiarly known and skillfully administered, war between the vril-discoverers ceased, for they brought the art of destruction to such perfection as to annul all superiority in numbers, discipline, or military skill. The fire lodged in the hollow of a rod directed by the hand of a child could shatter the strongest fortress, or cleave its burning way from the van to the rear of an embattled host. If army met army, and both had command of this agency, it could be but to the annihilation of each. The age of war was therefore gone…
It is fascinating to note that this is one of the earliest references to the idea of mutually assured destruction! Wikipedia notes that the earliest reference is by Wilkie Collins in 1870,
I begin to believe in only one civilising influence—the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace.
This is only a year before the publication of The Coming Race, though it is unclear if Bulwer-Lytton was aware of Collins’ statement or had arrived at a similar conclusion.
2. Personal ‘jetpacks’: Well, not ‘jetpacks’, per se, but wings! Every member of the Vril-ya society (with the notable exception that married women hang up their wings) wears a pair of Vril-powered wings:
I turned my gaze on my host in a feverish wonder. I ventured to place my hand on the large wings that lay folded on his breast, and in doing so a slight shock as of electricity passed through me. I recoiled in fear; my host smiled, and as if courteously to gratify my curiosity, slowly expanded his pinions. I observed that his garment beneath them became dilated as a bladder that fills with air. The arms seemed to slide into the wings, and in another moment he had launched himself into the luminous atmosphere, and hovered there, still, and with outspread wings, as an eagle that basks in the sun.
The first flight by the Wright brothers would not be until 1903; hot air balloons, however, had been in use for nearly a hundred years. Bulwer-Lytton seems to have been ‘splitting the difference’ between the methods of flight, combining wings and an air-filled bladder for his flying device.
3. Robots: The nice conceit of multipurpose vril allowed Bulwer-Lytton to imagine lots of wondrous things. Menial work such as cleaning and farming in the Vril-ya society is performed by vril-powered ‘automata’:
In all service, whether in or out of doors, they make great use of automaton figures, which are so ingenious, and so pliant to the operations of vril, that they actually seem gifted with reason. It was scarcely possible to distinguish the figures I beheld, apparently guiding or superintending the rapid movements of vast engines, from human forms endowed with thought.
Bulwer-Lytton was not the first to imagine a mechanical man, of course. Though the term ‘robot’ would not be coined until 1921, writers have envisioned the creation of artificial servants throughout history. Bulwer-Lytton’s seems to be one of the earliest which is not animated by divine providence, and which is essentially electrically powered.
It is worth noting that Bulwer-Lytton was not in agreement with all scientific progress. Note the following discussion of Vril-ya history between the narrator and his host:
“Pardon me,” answered Aph-Lin: “in what we call the Wrangling or Philosophical Period of History, which was at its height about seven thousand years ago, there was a very distinguished naturalist, who proved to the satisfaction of numerous disciples such analogical and anatomical agreements in structure between an An and a Frog, as to show that out of the one must have developed the other. They had some diseases in common; they were both subject to the same parasitical worms in the intestines; and, strange to say, the An has, in his structure, a swimming-bladder, no longer of any use to him, but which is a rudiment that clearly proves his descent from a Frog.
Unhappily, these disputes became involved with the religious notions of that age; and as society was then administered under the government of the Koom-Posh, who, being the most ignorant, were of course the most inflammable class — the multitude took the whole question out of the hands of the philosophers; political chiefs saw that the Frog dispute, so taken up by the populace, could become a most valuable instrument of their ambition; and for not less than one thousand years war and massacre prevailed, during which period the philosophers on both sides were butchered, and the government of Koom-Posh itself was happily brought to an end by the ascendancy of a family that clearly established its descent from the aboriginal tadpole, and furnished despotic rulers to the various nations of the Ana.”
Bulwer-Lytton is clearly attempting to parody the debate surrounding Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was first published in 1859 and inspired furious arguments between scientists as well as between scientists and advocates of religion. B-L seems to take a somewhat negative view of the whole debate as destructive to societal stability.
Evolution wasn’t the only scientific misstep by Bulwer-Lytton. At another point in the book, he espouses on phrenology, so clearly science was a hit-or-miss thing for B-L!
As I have said, most of the book is a description of the Vril-ya society without much plot or tension. Near the end of the book, a small fragment of plot develops when a woman of the society falls in love with the narrator (making him an early incarnation of Captain Kirk). This is a problem, as the woman in Vril-ya society make the marriage proposals, and an acceptance by the narrator would result in his immediate destruction as a biologically inferior specimen.
Overall, The Coming Race is a fascinating read from a historical point of view, though it is terribly unexciting as a story.
It is worth noting that the story has actually been taken as non-fiction by a number of people throughout the years. According to Wikipedia, as early as 1876 various people have claimed to have encountered actual Vril-ya citizens! In the mid 1900s, it was claimed that a secret occult vril society had been founded in pre-Nazi Germany, and it was even alleged that Hitler himself became part of this society and funded its efforts during the war! There is no apparent evidence for such a society, even though Hitler certainly had occult interests.
I thought that The Coming Race would be more or less the earliest sci-fi novel I could find. Apparently, though, there is an even earlier work of some significance! I’ll come back to it in another post…