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. Weirdly, the novel also played a role in the creation of the Nazi party.
The Coming Race: Title
The title refers to the antagonists of the novel, the ‘Vril-ya’, who are planning to leave their underground habitat, invade the surface of the Earth and subjugate humanity using their superior technology.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your 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 world of the danger.
(For how to write a logline, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
The Coming Race: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. 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. The rope breaks, killing the engineer and trapping the narrator, who is menaced by a giant lizard and flees in panic.
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. Panic overcomes the narrator, 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 comprise 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. However, they believe in a form of reincarnation in which, instead of dying, a being merely changes form.
When the narrator describes human civilisation in what he regards as glowing terms, he horrifies the Vril-ya. They despise democracy as ‘government by the ignorant’, and regard nation-states as repressive, all organised politics as conflict-ridden and capitalism as barbarous.
The Vril-ya take it for granted that they must one day eliminate the savages the narrator describes, though they take no pleasure in the thought. They explain how they have previously exterminated 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 menaced the narrator. To do this, he proposes to use the narrator as bait. When the narrator objects, the Vril-ya child 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 their 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-ya society will not condone a liaison between a Vril-ya and a ‘savage’ and they will murder him 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 has romantic feelings for a younger ‘princess’ of the Vril-ya. He fantasises about becoming her consort, taking control of Vril-ya society and reforming it to be more like the USA. Zee swiftly disabuses him of these notions. She also 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 her plan.
The Vril-ya notice the narrator’s attraction to the young princess and resolve to kill him. The narrator asks a sympathetic young Vril-ya to help him go back the way he came, but the sympathiser tells him the Vril-ya blocked the passage 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 superior to our own, and their morality allows the genocide of inferior species, that invasion will cause the extinction of the human species.
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
The Coming Race: Analysis
The Coming Race doesn’t have much of a plot. The plot is effectively a framing device for the bulk of the novel, which comprises the narrator describing aspects of Vril-ya civilisation.
For example, Bulwer-Lytton devotes chapters 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. All this world-building description can be interesting, but it’s a bit essay like. Sometimes Bulwer-Lytton thinly disguises his descriptive passages as a conversation between the narrator and one of the Vril-ya. At other times, he simply uses 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 narrator’s would-be lover, is the only Vril-ya character who has any traits other than serenity.
The Coming Race: Influence
The Coming Race is one of the first science-fiction novels, and that, not its literary qualities, is why it’s interesting. Although tales of imaginary civilisations had been common for centuries, they had been fantasies. The Coming Race added science-fiction elements to that fantasy 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 Shelley’s Frankenstein, although largely a gothic horror, has a scientific explanation for its central conceit. Some of the work of Jules Verne, such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth, pre-date The Coming Race. The works of H. G. Wells though came later, making The Coming Race a very early science-fiction novel indeed.
The World’s First Sci-Fi Convention
The ‘Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fete’ held in 1891 at the Royal Albert Hall in London was the world’s first science fiction convention, featuring all the kinds of things that have become common in modern conventions such as special guests, performances, people dressing in costumes inspired by the book, and stalls selling Vril merchandise.
And it predated more commonly recognised early science-fiction conventions by forty-odd years.
The name of Bovril, which is a paste a bit like Marmite but made from beef, comes from the vril force in The Coming Race. I.e. it’s Bo(vine) vril.
In 1947, German rocket scientist Willy Ley claimed several prominent Nazis had been members of a ‘Vril Society’ and believed that The Coming Race was non-fiction. There’s no real proof of this, but it’s true that many people thought The Coming Race depicted 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’s 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 creating the Nazi party and its ideology. Hitler himself, though, was not interested in esotericism, and the Thule Society lost influence on the Nazi party before it came to power. However, notions based loosely on The Coming Race persist to the current day in esoteric neo-nazi circles.
Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race
The Coming Race was a major inspiration for the Iron Sky movies, in particular Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race, which steals not only its title from Bulwer-Lytton but also the idea of a race living underground, using an unlimited source of energy and planning to wipe out humanity.
It also features antagonists who are a group of reptilian shape-shifters led by a dinosaur-riding Adolph Hitler… and is as bonkers as it sounds.
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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