The Coming Race: Book Review
The Coming Race, written in 1871 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, was one of the first lost world novels and a prototype science-fiction novel.
The Coming Race: Logline
While exploring a deep mineshaft, a traveller accidentally finds his way into a subterranean city inhabited by an ancient civilisation. Realising the threat that this advanced race poses to humanity he tries to escape and warn the human race of the danger.
The Coming Race: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1871. The unnamed narrator, a young American man, and his engineer friend go exploring in some caves they discovered at the bottom of a mine shaft. After a rope breaks, they’re attacked by a giant lizard which kills the engineer.
Trapped, the narrator stumbles his way through the cave system until he discovers a city occupied by humanoids. Luckily, the first people he meets, who call themselves ‘Vril-ya’, are curious rather than aggressive towards him. He though is overcome by panic, and in self-defence the Vril-ya knock him out.
While the narrator is unconscious, the Vril-ya learn to speak English by accessing the narrator’s memories. When he wakes again they spend some time explaining their underground civilisation. The narrator learns that millions of Vril-ya live beneath the surface of the earth, where they fled millennia ago to escape a worldwide flood.
Initially the Vril-ya’s ancestors faced a difficult existence, but eventually they discovered a source of energy, called ‘Vril’ which they learnt to control through willpower and vril staffs, which they carry at all times. With this almost unlimited source of energy, which they used to both heal and destroy, their society became a utopia.
The Vril-ya explain their society has no real laws, as the individual possession of Vril makes enforcement impossible. Instead they have mutually agreed guidelines and conventions. There are no politics and a chief magistrate resolves the few disputes. The Vril-ya consist of two sexes. The females are bigger and stronger than the men, relationships are consensual and the females take the initiative in romance.
The Vril-ya are not strongly religious or philosophical, regarding such speculation on the unknowable as pointless and counter-productive. They believe though in a form of reincarnation, in which a living being is never destroyed but on death merely changes form.
When the narrator describes human civilisation in what he regards as glowing terms, the Vril-ya are horrified, despising democracy as ‘government by the ignorant’, nation-states as repressive, all organised politics as conflict-ridden and capitalism as barbarous.
The Vril-ya take it for granted that such savages as the narrator describes must one day be eliminated, though they take no pleasure in the thought. They explain how they have been forced to exterminate many inferior civilisations in their underground world, and they show the narrator Vril-powered weapons, such as city-destroying artillery shells, that are far in advance of human science.
A Vril-ya child takes the narrator to cull the giant lizard which killed his engineer friend. To do this he proposes to use the narrator as a lure. When the narrator objects, the Vril-ya mind-controls him and makes him sit by the lake inhabited by the lizard. The lizard appears and the child disposes of it with a single blast from the child’s vril staff.
The narrator starts to sense that one of the Vril females, Zee, is falling in love with him. Feeling that this could lead to disaster, he asks Zee’s father what to do. Zee’s father says that Vril society will not condone a liaison between a Vril and a ‘savage’ and he will be murdered unless he dissuades Zee from pursuing him. Leaving is not an option because the Vril-ya don’t want him to reveal their civilisation to the surface world.
Though not attracted to Zee, the narrator does form romantic feelings for a younger ‘princess’ of the Vril-ya. He fantasises about becoming her consort, taking control of Vril society and reforming it to be more like the USA. He is swiftly disabused of these dreams by Zee, who tells him that any inkling of his attraction to the princess will sign his death warrant. She suggests that his only option is a platonic marriage to herself and exile in a remote underground area. The narrator rejects Zee’s plan.
The Vril-ya realise the narrator’s attraction to the young princess and resolve to destroy him. The narrator asks a sympathetic young Vril-ya to help him go back the way he came, but the Vril-ya tells him the passage was blocked long ago.
The narrator accepts his fate and prepares for death, but on the eve of his execution Zee uses her Vril power to reopen the passage and helps him return to the surface.
Back in the USA, the narrator records a warning that in time the Vril-ya will leave their underground habitat and invade the surface of the Earth. As their technology is far in advance of our own, and their morality allows the genocide of inferior species, that invasion will result in the annihilation of mankind.
The Coming Race: Analysis
The Coming Race doesn’t have much of a plot. Such plot as there is is effectively a framing device for the bulk of the novel, which consists of the narrator describing aspects of Vril-ya civilisation. For example, chapters are devoted to Vril language (highly regular and clear), sociology (conflict free), and the arts (which are withering due to lack of conflict in Vril-ya society). Most of one page expounds on the phrenology (relationship between skull shape and personality) of Vril-ya skulls. This description can be interesting, but it’s a bit essay like. Sometimes the description is thinly disguised as a conversation between the narrator and one of the Vril-ya, at other times it is simply bald exposition.
The characters in The Coming Race are extremely thin. The narrator is mostly a reader-surrogate and mouthpiece for the conventional views of the time. Zee, the female Vril-ya, is the only character who has any traits other than serenity.
The Coming Race is one of the first science-fiction novels, and that’s why it’s interesting, not for its literary qualities. Although tales of fantastical civilisations had been common for centuries, The Coming Race fused prototypical science-fiction to that genre.
Science fiction elements include:
- The Vril-ya having knowledge beyond the science of the time.
- Much of the novel being concerned with describing the technology of the Vril-ya.
- The emphasis on Vril-ya scientific and technological progress.
- The Vril power having a scientific explanation rather than being magical or supernatural.
There are earlier science-fiction novels. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (which although largely a gothic horror also has a scientific explanation for its central conceit) and some of the work of Jules Verne, such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth, predate The Coming Race. The works of H.G. Wells though came later, making The Coming Race a very early science-fiction novel indeed.
Reality: The esoteric roots of Nazism
In 1947, German rocket scientist Willy Ley claimed several prominent Nazis had been members of a ‘Vril Society’ based on belief in The Coming Race . There is no real proof of this, but it is true that many people thought The Coming Race was a fictional depiction of a real civilisation. For example, Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy claimed: “The name Vril may be a fiction; the force itself is a fact.” It is also true that ‘The Thule Society’ an esoteric-nationalist-racist group influenced by Theosophy (and hence at second-hand by The Coming Race) had a role in the creation of the Nazi party and its ideology. Hitler himself though was not particularly interested in esotericism and the Thule Society lost influence on the Nazi party before it came to power.
The Coming Race: My Verdict
Worth reading, but as a curiosity mostly.
Want to Read It?
As it is long out of copyright, The Coming Race is available for free on the Guttenberg Project here.
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