Review of The Coming Race (1871)


Edward Bulwer-Lytton (writer).

Read in 2021.

A subterranean human civilization which, by virtue of its inherited habits and mastery of a mesmeric electrical force called “Vril”, is predicted to conquer the surface world.

There is very little plot in this book and much more exposition. It is not literary or lyrical, but rather an experiment in soft, early science fiction. Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote anonymously, mostly tries to imagine how the subterranean society might work. He devotes sections to its language, economics, politics, social organization etc. Much of that material is a utopian fantasy, in that the society of the “Vril-ya” is egalitarian, stable and happy. It is also peaceful until threatened, yet when threatened, it will send its children to commit genocide without any apparent anxiety or trauma.

Some aspects of the utopian fantasy are clearly insincere. As just one of his inventions, and with reference to real-world feminists, Bulwer-Lytton tries to picture an inverted gender system, a little like the one in Gerd Brantenberg’s Egalia 106 years later. Among the “Vril-ya”, it is women who pursue men, while men wait, passive and blushing, culturally prohibited from expressing their own preferences except by accepting or rejecting female suitors. Accordingly, women are taller (seven feet) and more muscular than men, and it is also women who excel at the academies etc. However, women are still “tender” and nurturing, and still look beautiful to the narrator from the US. The Vril-ya also refer to their civilization by a name that means “men”, because men are still primary even after all the physical and cultural advantages have shifted to women. Bulwer-Lytton was thus able to imagine a significant contrast, but could not bring himself to strip out any of those qualities for which he valued women, nor did he actually dethrone men. This seems to be an example of a sexual fantasy where Bulwer-Lytton imagined being pursued, as the narrator is pursued, by supernormally fit would-be partners, without the deep changes of better SF.

There are many other gaps and flaws in Bulwer-Lytton’s imagination. Those giant women, for example, reserve particular colours of clothing to communicate their romantic status, which is dumb. Even beyond the soft-SF premise of Vril, the geological and biological premises don’t work because, although Bulwer-Lytton refers to Cuvier, he took nothing from On the Origin of Species (1859). Similarly, although social status and wealth exist among the Vril-ya, they are paradoxically not valued, which prompts the question why they exist. The local religion is a permeating deism patterned after the hippest forms of mid-19th-century Christianity. Domestication and hunting to exterminate predators are displayed as if they were unproblematic, and this is not one of the novel’s satirical passages wherein the US narrator exposes the flaws of his own society by boasting about them. There is apparently no environmental awareness at all. Accordingly, despite the supposed wisdom and constrained ecology of the Vril-ya, their own numbers are expected to increase indefinitely.

This being Bulwer-Lytton, the language is heavy and stale. Read the novel anyway, for its role in history. It was a huge hit, which is unusual for SF so extremely top-heavy with exposition and worldbuilding. Vile charlatan gurus like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner believed or pretended to believe that this work of fiction was true, which is also a rare thing, and had interesting if somewhat depressing consequences. The Castle of Otranto (1764) was supposedly the first modern fiction that masqueraded as non-fiction to boost its impact, like the ancient Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE), but The Coming Race brought that dangerous game of literary disinformation to a new level.

References here: “The Mound” (1930), Under meteorernas trumeld (1932), Ender’s Game (1985/1991), Always Coming Home (1985), Xenocide (1991), Avatar (2009), Witch Craft Works (2014).

text fiction