Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Unprofessional Book Review: H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes

I just finished reading a novel by H.G. Wells titled When the Sleeper Wakes. It is a tale about a man named Graham who in 1897 is walking around London, despondent over his inability to fall asleep. He reveals to a new friend that he hasn't slept in nearly a week and is in utter despair. His friend takes pity on him in his near-zombie state and brings him back to his home where Graham falls unexpectedly asleep.

When Graham wakes up, he finds himself in a display case in some sort of museum. He is quite disoriented, but eventually finds out the shocking truth: he has been sleeping for 203 years, and that means that he has woken up in the year 2100. Graham had a modest savings when he fell asleep, but apparently Graham's wealth has been cared for in a trust since he fell asleep, and now he appears to be king over half of the earth because of the size of his fabulous wealth. Also, his status as "the sleeper" has become somewhat iconic. Watching a 22nd Century television show, Graham discovers that "when the sleeper wakes" has become an expression for things which are never going to happen.

2100 is a time of political unrest, however, and there are many in society who want to claim Graham's wealth for themselves. Apparently, there is a council which rules over most of the earth, and they rule in Graham's name. Having never expected Graham to actually wake up (some of them thought he might actually be dead) they find themselves in the odd position of needing to hand Graham his power, even though he understands nothing of the 2100 political world.

Apparently, Graham discovers that the council is plotting to kill him and he is rescued by the resistance fighters who gather around a man named Ostrog. The council is eventually overthrown and Graham becomes the owner of nearly half the world. He immediately makes Ostrog his steward, and Ostrog takes care of the day-to-day affairs of Graham's empire.

One of the more interesting changes - to my mind - is Wells' interesting prediction that in a hundred years all numbers will be calculated in dozens, and that there will be a new single digit for the number '11'. Another prediction by Wells that is a bit more spot on was his depiction of television. Considering that he wrote this book in 1899, the fact that he foresaw small cylindrical portable devices which you could watch 'shows' on is pretty imaginative. I've got to give Wells credit there.

I did find an oh-so-generous passing reference to Christianity in one part of the book. Graham is flying over England and he sees a "Pleasure City" filled with games and all sorts of distractions...
saloons, baseball and football circuses, wild beast rings and the innumerable temples of the Christian and quasi-Christian sects, the Mahomedans, Buddhists, Gnostics, Spook Worshippers, the Incubus Worshippers, the Furniture Worshippers, and so forth...
In Wells' future, religion is just another distraction.

A little later in the book, Graham is walking down the street in a disguise so as not to attract attention to himself. He sees bright signs designed by the Christians to draw the attention of passersby.
these inscriptions arrested him, being to his sense for the most part almost incredible blasphemy. Among the less offensive were "Salvation on the First Floor and turn to the Right." "Put your Money on your Maker." "The Sharpest Conversion in London, Expert Operators! Look Slippy!" "What Christ would say to the Sleeper;—Join the Up-to-date Saints!" "Be a Christian—without hindrance to your present Occupation." "All the Brightest Bishops on the Bench to-night and Prices as Usual." "Brisk Blessings for Busy Business Men."
He remarks with alarm that this seems like a dreadfully irreverent type of Christianity, but his companion replies,
I suppose it would, of course. I had forgotten. Nowadays the competition for attention is so keen, and people simply haven't the leisure to attend to their souls, you know, as they used to do...In the old days you had quiet Sabbaths and the countryside. Though somewhere I've read of Sunday afternoons that—
Here is the sad part. H.G. Wells was right about what would happen to the popular forms of Christianity and its ugly fate. The only difference is, it didn't take 200 years for Christianity to become a mere form of amusement and an irreverent novelty; it took something more like 90 years, though the seeds of its fate were planted long before that. But I'll leave further analysis of this sort to experts like George Marsden.

The book predicts airplanes, but Wells could not have imagined that they would exist within 30 years of writing this novel. He thought it would take much longer. Also, his airplanes in the year 2100 are still a bit amateurish, as he pictures them having cloth wings and being open to the air. He imagines that people will have to drink elixers in order to counteract the low air pressure from being up so high. So ironically, he still has more faith in Christianity to last 200 years than he does in science to make a workable Sopwith Camel.

In the end, Graham does become the master of the human race. He uses his power to dissolve his ownership of the world and give his property back to the human race, but Ostrog, his steward he left in charge rises against him, and the book ends with a climactic air battle between Graham and Ostrog. In the end, we are left uncertain as to Graham's survival as his plane plummets to the earth.

H.G. Wells is clearly a socialist and displays his Union card quite prominently in this book. His portrayal of the labor class is saddening and at the same time realistic. However, Wells very clearly does not present a solution to their situation except to "give the world" to the people.

My interpretation of the religious themes - though few - are that Wells has a great reverential respect for Christ, but does not believe that Christianity has the durability to survive 200 years of cultural shifts while still emerging in some recognizable form. In many respects, he over-estimated the survival of Christianity in popular culture, because his predictions for Christianity a hundred years from now are already here. In many churches, leadership have such little estimation of their people that they teach them nothing more than slogans and catchphrases to build their understanding of the Christian life upon. There is still a remnant of true faith, however, and Wells obviously is taking something of a naturalistic or sociological understanding of Christianity into account. However, in Wells' future, there are no books, so I could see that in a world without the Bible, how could any meaningful Christian faith endure?

Dystopian novels like this are awesome. I love them. But they tell us more about the author than they do about the actual future. Clearly, it is hard to tell if this is the future that Wells predicts, that he would wish for, or if it is just a fictional city fitting the need of the story. However, many off-handed comments demonstrate that Wells has a soft-spot for eugenics and that he still predicts racial divisions to exist in society in 2100 (the invading army led by Ostrog are "fearsome negros." He also uses other racist phraseology (at one point he has the referring to Graham as "boss massa") to refer to the Africans. So Wells was a racist, and he believed in eugenics. He still wrote one gripping and fascinating novel, especially for its time. The whole time I was quite impressed that this book had been written in the 1800s, because it took a great deal of thought and imagination, and for that we can appreciate the creative genius of the man even while rejecting his evil views on race and eugenics.

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