THE COMING RACE

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)

The American narrator (unnamed), after an extensive education in England, embarks on a world tour during which he’s invited by a mining engineer to inspect a given works.  The two descend to the lowest gallery and see a faint light in the distance.  Investigating, they discover a vast chasm lying beneath a vertical drop-off that apparently is artificial:  they see roads and part of a construction of some sort.  Returning the next day with ropes and lanterns, they begin descending into the light but the engineer falls and dies.  The narrator arrives at the bottom just in time to see a giant crocodile devour his friend.  Dithering a bit, he walks down into a vast valley lit up by an endless series of lamps that illuminate the cavern as far as the eye can see.  There’s lots of vegetation and fungi, colored red, and elk-like animals grazing on the foliage.  In the distance a tall man with wings approaches and, touching him gently, relieves his nervousness by stroking him with a sort of wand like apparatus.  They journey to a city in the distance that consists of immense buildings, rather like the Egyptian monuments at Aswan, and decorated with fountains and red trees.  Entering one of the buildings and climbing to the top story, the narrator is introduced to the tall man’s twelve-year old son, who puts him to sleep by breathing on him.

Waking after an indeterminate amount of time, he awakes and sees that the walls of the room are covered with jewels and crystals, and notices a balcony from which the enormous city can be seen stretching into the distance.  His hosts guide him down into a fire-lit triangular plaza and into another building, to a room with with a giant crystal machine and in which a number of children are lying, asleep.  He notices, for the first time, a few women evidently caring for the somnolent ones (who are being indoctrinated), and sees that, physically, they are a lot bigger than the men.  Entering another room, he sees books with crystal covers, duo decimo size, and then watches a sort of aerial ballet taking place outside, beyond another balcony.  His guide enlightens him as to the method of flying:  each adult has mechanical wings that fold up when not in use, and that extend via the action of the operator’s arms that slide into recesses in the wings themselves.  At this point, he’s overwhelmed by the bizarreness of everything around him and attacks one of the men.  They put him to sleep and he doesn’t waken for several days, during which they teach him their language and acculturate him to a limited extent.

Upon waking, the narrator knows a lot more about where he is, due to the advanced mental manipulations possessed by his custodians.  After some days of additional education, he comes to learn that his hosts, the Vril-Ya, descended thousands of years ago from the surface, seeking protection from hostile forces engaged in constant warfare.  At one time there were nations that warred with one another to the point that mutual destruction seemed inevitable, in spite of their common ancestry.  The different factions were all descended from swamp creatures that resembled, in fact, were, frogs.  When the decision was made to move underground, the survivors accidentally discovered Vril, a sort of quantum-based force that enabled them to build their cities and to control matter in any way whatsoever.  With a touch of their wands they could annihilate any enemy, regardless of its size, and they could create any building or structure necessary for their welfare.

The head of the government was called the “Tur”, and he had total power to manipulate the society as he wished, but only with the consent of the rest of society, mainly because any one person could, using Vril, eradicate whatever he found offensive.  Women, being the largest members of the species, ran the social side of the culture, including marriages, divorces, and the production of offspring.  Most of the real work, farming, bridge-building, civilian defense, was done by children under the age of twelve, because they were the only ones that had any unbridled fighting instincts left.  The city was surrounded by numerous lower-class countries that were savage and resentful of the Vril-Ya, principally because they themselves had no access to Vril.  Also numerous swamps and networks of caverns held prehistoric monsters that had to be eliminated on a regular basis merely to maintain the security of the city.

After a period of time, Zee, the daughter of Aph-Lin, the narrator’s host, fell in love with him and was on the point of proposing.  Marriage, in the Vril-Ya society, was considered to be “the untrammeled interchange of gentle affections”, and to the authorities that couldn’t be accomplished by allowing the narrator, whom they regarded as little more than a painted barbarian, to wed a native Vril-Ya.  And even if Zee verbally stated that she wanted him for a husband, that would be reason enough to murder him.  After a certain amount of waffling back and forth, Zee offers to escort him back to the surface, but the narrator is afraid that that would eventually subject the surface dwelling peoples to the awesome power of the Vril, resulting in the destruction of human beings en masse.  The Vril-Ya had demonstrated that they have no compunction about slaughtering whole villages with a wave of their wands, so the possibility of them being them loose and unencumbered on the exterior of the planet was frightening.  Zee’s younger brother, Taee, has received an order to erase the narrator, so Zee wakes him one night and they travel to the access point, where she flies him up to the lower gallery and then seals up the hole after him.  The narrator walks out of the mine, returns home and writes this book to warn humanity of the terror lurking below their feet.

This is one of Bulwer-Lytton’s shorter works and his only science-fiction novel.  It was published in 1871, and presumably influenced a number of other imaginative authors, Verne, Burroughs, and many others.  It’s quite well realized, with long descriptions of Vril culture and civilization, and speculative material about governments, societies, genetic propagation, and other subjects.  Bulwer-Lytton is not well received by modern critics and readers, but, imo, he has a lot to offer the curious who might have the time and inclination to read him.  His style is sort of like Charles Reade’s;  less egomaniacal than B. Disraeli and not nearly as difficult to follow as, say, Henry James.  But he does tend to get carried away with his own thoughts, commonly being distracted into lengthy rambles that don’t contribute much to the action or plot.  Some readers like this kind of thing, tho…  maybe you’re one?

21 thoughts on “THE COMING RACE”

  1. Hmmm…I always respect the ability of a science fiction author to create a completely new reality/new world/etc. That takes real imagination. That said, though, I’m with you, Mudpuddle, about rambling on. In general, I prefer the author to get to the point. I like enough detail to give me a sense of place/time/culture, but then, please, get on with it. Still, it does sound like an interesting premise.

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    1. it was an interesting book, possibly because i’ve read quite a few stories about civilizations underground… i run across one every once in a while by someone i’ve never heard of… mostly older works; nowadays most persons are pretty sure that there are not too many cultures living beneath the surface, although they do make their presence known occasionally, at political rallies and such… (lol)

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      1. Found it! It was in a small pile next to my Sylvester plushie…. along with ‘A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille and The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle.

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  2. ‘Not well received by modern critics…’ Indeed. I agree he’s better than usually given credit for. I haven’t read this one, though. I could see science fiction from him. And it would seem to be his most downloaded book on Gutenberg…surprising it wasn’t Paul Clifford since that seems to have been Snoopy’s favorite novel…if no one else’s…

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    1. i have yet to read PC, although i’m more or less aware of it… an enthusiastic person could probably make a life-long commitment to reading all of Bulwer-Lytton if they chose to pursue that course… could be dangerous, tho… clogging of the cerebral cortex… one would have to take a break and consume some Wodehouse or H. Allen Smith (life in a putty knife factory for instance) just to clear the synapses…

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  3. I confess that I had never heard about this author, or PC, or Allen Smith, though I have read a few Wodehouse and one only Henry James.
    I’m lazy about an underground world. Between The Princess and the Goblin and some other books I am sure I read to the girls when they were young, I don’t know if I want to go there. Though sci-fi is something I crave sometimes.

    Great review.

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    1. never read the Princess and the Goblin… who’s the author? sci fi is a sometime acquired taste i think; readers get hooked on it at an early age and develop a taste for it… perhaps it plays a role in expanding one’s conceptions of the universe, even though it’s fiction…
      i started an HJ once but didn’t finish it. i’m beginning to feel guilty about my ignorance, so maybe i’ll be a bit more severe with myself and tackle another one…

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      1. The author is George MacDonald, he influenced CS Lewis.
        It’s an acquired taste. I’m not averse to it, I just need to be in the mood for it.
        I’m ignorant too, but I won’t feel bad if I were you.
        And while not necessary (what is, right?), I believe that HJ has many titles to give him a second opportunity.

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  4. Stories of secret civilizations exist
    I guess underground or in remote places were very popular for a time. I generally love them. Among other things they can make for good allegories and social commentary: This one sounds neat.

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    1. this one definitely had application as a corollary to the current political situation, i felt… particularly in the barbarian/elite descriptions, reminiscent of the increasing gap between the uber-rich and the rest of the planetary population…

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    1. i’ve eyed that one along with some of his other door-stoppers; sometime i’ll get to all of them, maybe… at our age it doesn’t do to be too ambitious, haha… i’ll check out your blogspot…

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  5. As always, your review is as exciting as reading the book must have been. The book is evidence that there were individuals just as smart and savvy as any modern person. I want to read this! Maybe not right away but someday before too long. I would like to recommend to you The Broken Earth trilogy by N K Jemison, one of the best set of books in the modern sci fi genre I have found. (https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/n-k-jemisin-broken-earth-trilogy-books-in-order/) I don’t mind lengthy rambles if the rambler has something interesting to say.

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    1. totally agree re people being just as smart then as they are now… (maybe more so?).. i’ll look for the BE trilogy… never heard of Jemison, tho… i have to say, tho, that i haven’t read much modern sci fi altho i read a whole lot of it when i was young… in general i’ve been disappointed with modern authors. I’ll give this a shot, tho, on your recommendation…

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  6. This seemed to start out as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth which I did not find all that enthralling, although imaginative. I think I would conclude the same thing about this book.

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    1. maybe, Sharon… i was rapt about the Verne… differing tastes, i guess…. i was listening to Rossini’s Semiramide opera today… incredible duet for two sopranos in it if you like opera…

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