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The Coming Race
Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Wesleyan University Press, 218 pages

The Coming Race
Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Edward Bulwer-Lytton (180373), also known as Edward George Earle Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, assumed his name in 1843 when he inherited the Lytton estate "Knebworth." He was named Baron Lytton of Knebworth in 1866. Many of his early novels of manners -- Falkland (1827), Paul Clifford (1830), and Eugene Aram (1832) -- reflect the influence of his friend William Godwin. Bulwer-Lytton, however, is best remembered for his extremely well-researched historical novels, particularly The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Rienzi (1835). A member of Parliament from 1831 to 1841, Bulwer-Lytton was a reformer, but in 1852 he returned to Parliament as a Conservative. In 1858 he was appointed colonial secretary. He was also a successful dramatist.

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A review by Nathan Brazil

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'"It is utterly impossible that you should go hence alone," said Aph-Lin. "Even among the Vril-ya you would be exposed to great dangers. Certain peculiarities of formation and colour, and the extraordinary phenomenon of hirsute bushes upon your cheeks and chin, denoting in you a species of An distinct alike from our race and any known race of barbarians yet extant, would attract, of course, special attention from the college of Sages in whatever community of Vril-ya you visited, and it would depend upon the individual temper of some individual sage whether you would be received, as you have been here, hospitably, or whether you would not be at once dissected for scientific purposes."'
Going back to the future is one way to describe the seminal work of a great grandfather among SF literature. Writing in the 19th century, Sir Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer was known from 1843 onward as Bulwer-Lytton. In 1860, Charles Dickens asked him to contribute a story to his journal All the Year Round, but far from being a darling of the establishment, he went on to have a writing career which often courted controversy. This imprint of The Coming Race, is a scholarly edition, containing the whole of the elegantly written original story, plus a fulsome forty-one page introduction by David Seed, a fascinating appendix titled "Bulwer-Lytton's First Underworld," plus a Bulwer-Lytton biography and bibliography. The introduction is something which I feel deserves special mention, because as might be deduced from its size, what's presented has a lot to say.

David Seed provides concise insight with reference to the many themes touched upon and often pioneered in The Coming Race, and goes on to examine them from divergent perspectives. Among these are; utopian themes, automata and the loss of individualism, theosophy to Nazism, Darwinian themes, gender politics, and central to the novel, vril: the life force. Vril is to Bulwer-Lytton what the Force is to George Lucas, and could well be the source of inspiration for whoever Lucas borrowed from when he reimagined the idea in Star Wars. Vril, astonishingly for its day and age, also permeated into real life in a number of ways. Most commercially as part of the name for the beef extract drink, Bovril. Vril, is a mysterious, vital force, which under the command of a skilled practitioner, can do all that was ascribed to the Force, and much more.

The Coming Race tells the story of an English gentleman who undertakes a private exploration with a friend below a deep mineshaft, and accidentally falls into a subterranean world. This is a place inhabited by communities of an advanced race named the Vril-ya, various monsters, and sub-races of savages. How the Vril-ya react to their visitor from the surface, and what he learns from them is presented using language, forms of expression and perspectives which, from a modern day viewpoint can seem rather quaint. However, it's always worth persevering, as The Coming Race is a work that, with twenty-first century hindsight, is of equal importance to better known classics such as Frankenstein or The Time Machine. Years before H.G. Wells popularised the term 'Scientific Romance,' Bulwer-Lytton was describing his own work as "perhaps a romance but such a romance as a Scientific amateur... might compose." Like many of his contemporaries, Bulwer-Lytton used his fiction as a means of intellectual speculation, and in the case of The Coming Race, pioneered fiction that dealt with the Earth's vast, unknown interior, where the dark and obscure subterranean world is used as a metaphor to discuss the uncertain destiny of humanity. In the Vril-ya, we see the forerunners of every alien or more than human race, with whom humankind was to find itself compared, and against whom we might one day be pitted. It also poses a number of subtle questions concerning what is really desirable progress, and what might only seem to be superior.

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton is best know today from Snoopy's use of his line "It was a dark and stormy night," from the novel Paul Clifford, but the depth and span of his imagination makes him someone that any inquiring fan of science fiction should read, at least once. The idea around which The Coming Race is based may appear hackneyed to some, but its intrinsic qualities have enabled it to stay in print, more than a century after the author's death. Grab a copy now, and enjoy the days of future passed.

Copyright © 2006 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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