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Edward Bulwer-Lytton's
The Coming Race
Story Summary
The first-person narrator tells his story of his yesteryears.  The reader
discovers at the end of the novel that the narrator has been "little invited
and little tempted to talk of the rovings and adventures of my
youth" (Bulwer-Lytton 291); however, he wants to share his tale after his
doctor diagnoses an illness "which . . . at any moment [could] be
fatal" (292). The Coming Race is the written record he leaves behind.

"In the year 18--" (2), the narrator (never properly named in the entire
story) is a rich and bored young man, "a native of ----, in the United States
of America" (1).  His "father once ran for Congress, but was signally
defeated by his tailor" (1).   He visits an engineer friend who works at a
mine.  The engineer accidentally discovers a hidden and "strange world,
admidst the bowels of the earth" (11) while making a new mine shaft; the
narrator convinces the engineer to go repelling with him down the
chasm.  The narrator descends first, but as the engineer lowers himself,
the fastenings of the rope loosen and he falls to his death.  An giant
alligator creature attacks, and the narrator flees; when he returns, the
body of his friend is gone.  Trapped and unable to go back up the rock
face, he goes deeper into the valley, and discovers Vril-ya, "The Civilized
Nation," people by a new race, the Ana.

The Ana are an ancient people, descended from frogs, and are thousands
of years more advanced than the surface-dwellers of Earth.  A Darwinian
evolution has made Vril-ya the superior race.  (Interestingly, The Coming
Race was published in the same year as Darwin's The Descent of Man.) 
Ana are:

. . . tall, not gigantic, but tall as the tallest man below the height of
giants.
    Its chief covering seemed to be composed of large wings folded over
its breast and reaching its knees; the rest of the attire was composed of
an under tunic and leggings of some thin fibrous material.  It wore on its
head a kind of tiara that shone with jewels, and carried in its right hand a
slender staff of bright metal like polished steel.  But the face! . . . It was
the face of man, but . . . distinct from our known extant races.  The
nearest approach to it . . . is the face of a sphinx . . .  (16)

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Vril-ya is an "aristrocratic republic" (185), a city-state of 12,000 families


that reminds the narrator of a perfect Athens (171).  The family is the
center of their society.  There is no poverty, but there is no forced
equality of wealth or property either (64-65).  The "single supreme
magistrate," the Tur, is elected by the community, an "office nominally
held for life, but he could seldom be induced to retain it after the first
approach of old age" (61).  The Tur is assisted by three women
Councillors, elected by the Tur out of the College of Sages, run by
females who are "widowed and childless" or "young [and]
unmarried" (65,67).  They scoff at the idea of Koom-Posh, "the
government of the many, or the ascendancy of the most ignorant or
hollow" (88).  Indeed, when the Ana's "education shall become finally
completed, [they] are destined to return to the upper world, and supplant
all the inferior races now existing therein" (120).

The main reason for the Ana's superiority is their discovery and mastery
of vril, an "all-permeating fluid" (58) that is "the unity in natural energic
agencies" (47).  Vril "comprehends in its manifold branches other forces
of nature . . . such as magnetism, galvanism, &c" (47).  This supra-primal
energy is used for multiple purposes:

 to influence and educate minds (48)


 to power most of their technology, such as air-boats (182),
"automata" (half-robot, half-golem technoservents) (31), and their
own wings, which are a mechanical creation (187)
 to heal (127)
 to defend themselves against enemies.

The Ana are even cremated by Vril power, and the ashes of the deceased
are put in a lidded containter and stored in a vault (230-231).  To the Ana,
burial is "to degrade the form you have loved and honoured . . . to the
loathsomeness of corruption" (232).  For all of these uses, each An (man)
and Gy (woman) have a Vril Staff, an all-purpose magic wand.  Even the
children use them: "a female infant of four years old . . . can accomplish
feats with the wand placed for the first time in her hand, which a life
spent in its practice would not enable the strongest and most skilled
[non-Ana] mechanician . . . to achieve" (126).

The narrator becomes a guest of Aph-Lin, a leader among the Ana.  He is


nicknamed "Tish,"  a term of endearment that implies "pet." Tish is
taught all about the culture of the Ana, assisted by Taë, the Tur's son,
and Aph-Lin's daughter, Zee.  When the Tur's daughter professes her love
for Tish, the Tur sentences Tish to death.  No member of  Vril-ya is

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allowed to mate with someone of an inferior race:

. . . [T]hey encourage . . . intermarriages, always provided that it be with


the Vril-ya nations.  Nations . . . [not] held capable of acquiring the
powers over the vril agencies which it had taken them generations to
attain and transmit, were regarded with more disdain than citizens of
New York regard the negroes.  (118-119)

This is where Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race implies the coming


racism of post-Reconstruction America.  Tish glorifies the Ana, which "as
seems to me clear by the roots of their language, descended from the
same ancestors as the great Aryan family, from which in varied streams
has flowed the dominant civilisation of the world" (271).

Zee -- who has also fallen in love with him -- helps Tish escape back to
the mine, where he regretfully returns back to his own humankind.
 

Utopianisms
The summary above covers several utopianisms.  Vril-ya may be an
"aristrocratic republic," but with the Tur elected for life (and given
absolute authority), it is a State-ruled society.  The people do have a
collective relationship, however, in their industry and agriculture.  Thanks
to vril, technology gives the Ana almost unlimited power.  The Ana's
belief in the superiority of their race makes it impossible for people of
color to be a part of their utopia; at least Anglo-Saxons can find comfort
that the Ana have descended from the "great Aryan family."  Lastly, Tish
is guided around by several people of Vril-ya:  Aph-Lin, Taë, and Zee.

Religion is a part of the Ana's lives.  They are monotheistic, and "unite in
the worship of the one divine Creator and Sustainer of the universe" (97). 
The worship services (held in public temples) are "exceedingly short, and
unattended with any pomp of ceremony" (98).  "Theological discussions"
have stopped, because when an An "endeavors to realise an idea of the
Divinity, he only reduces the Divinity into an An like himself" (99).
Bulwer-Lytton spends considerable time on women's place in Vril-ya.  Gy-
ei (women) have "the fullest enjoyment of all the rights of equality with
males" (71).  She is actually "superior to the Ana [men] in physical
strength" (72).  They also have better control over vril; in fact, they could
easily kill the males if they choose to (73).  Of course, for the sake of
domestic bliss, the Gy-ei have agreed to never use vril in such a way
(74).  In addition, all marriages can easily be terminated by either party
after three years, and after ten years, "the An has the privilege of taking

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a second wife, allowing the first to retire if she so please" (75); yet, the
narrator hastens to add that "divorce and polygamy are extremely
rare" (75).
There is a dark side to this pseudo-feminism.  Although the Gy-ei "claim
the privilege . . . of proclaiming their love and urging their suit [and] of
being the wooing party rather than the wooed" (76), they choose to let
the man of the house maintain his authority over her: "It is an aphorism
among them, that 'where a Gy loves it is her pleasure to obey'" (79).  Also,
a married female takes off her wings and never wears them while married
(again, by "choice") (190-191).  A married man, however, keeps his wings.

Children (and their vril staffs) are the guards at Vril-ya's bounderies, and
also run the machinery for all of the factories; their age of employment is
"from the time they leave the care of their mothers to the marriageable
age," sixteen for females and twenty for males (66-67).  Education is
public and free, and all are free to pursue their "individual
inclination" (70).  Bulwer-Lytton does not go deeply into detail about any
sort of education system, besides the already mentioned school of higher
learning, the College of Sages.  (The instructors are women, but both men
and women are allowed to be students.)
Work days are limited to eight hours of "Earnest Time" (146).  The Ana
are vegetarians.  They have stopped "shorten[ing] their lives by eating
the flesh of animals" (56); now, "life is never taken away for food" (69),
and animals are only used for their milk (115).  Also, there are no more
"intoxicating drinks" (115).

Crime is unknown in Vril-ya.  This is good, since "there was no power to


enforce laws against an offender who carried in his staff the power to
destroy his judges" (62).  In the rare instances of dispute, arbitration
decides the outcome.  In the past, the Ana's art was masterful, but now,
there is little artistry.  Painting has become "tame and
monotonous" (135).  New literature has also disintegrated into fairy-tales
written by children.  As Aph-Lin explains:

[T]hat part of literature . . . which relates to speculative theories on


society has become utterly exinct. . . . [A]nother part of our literature has
also become extinct . . . [books on] subjects which no one could
determine . . . You see our serene mode of life now; such it has been for
ages.  We have no events to chronicle.  What more of us can be said than
that 'they were born, they were happy, they died?'  (153-154)

With the lack of past primal emotions, such as "ambition, vengeance,


unhallowed love, the thirst for warlike renown, and suchlike" (155), there

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is no cathartic need for literature in the present.  What Bulwer-Lytton


points out here, intentionally or not, is a major flaw of most utopias.  They
are based on a non-changing society of pseudo-Vulcans (people who
repress their emotions and only use pure reason), i.e., non-existent and
non-human.

One interesting point of difference compared to other utopias is in regard


to the monetary system.  In Vril-ya, the Ana make coins out of "a peculiar
fossil shell"; their equivalent of paper currency uses "thin metallic
plates" (183).  Except for material differences, however, there are no
major systematic reforms.

Criticism
Bulwer-Lytton's aristrocratic prejudices are easy to see in The Coming
Race.  (He became an English Baron in 1866; although he began a
political career as a social reformer, he joined the Conservative Party in
1852, nine years after he inherited his mother's Knebworth estate.)  That
aside, it is hard to judge its utopian merits, since it is not a well-reasoned
social plan to emulate.  (We would first have to find some vril, and learn
how to use it.)  As for its literary value, the dialogue is often unreadable,
and some of Bulwer-Lytton's scientific jargon reads like excerpts from
bad Star Trek television episodes:

[The Ana's] conformation of skull has marked differences from that of any
known races in the upper world, though I cannot help thinking it a
development . . . of the Brachycephalic type of the Age of Stone in Lyell's
'Elements of Geology,' C.X. p.113, as compared with the Dolichocephalic
type of the beginning of the Age of Iron . . . (116)

The only place where the book's pseudo-science sounds eerily prescient
is when it discusses the vril.  If one thinks of nuclear energy instead of
vril, the following passages seem like descriptions of the atomic age,
nearly seventy-five years early:

Read about the power and destructiveness of vril.

Criticism aside, Bulwer-Lytton makes up his novelistic defects with a


clever imagination.  As a practical or critical utopian novel, it is the
weakest of the four we will discuss; however, The Coming Race is
successful as an escapist, fantasy yarn.
 
 
Home Page Front Page/Introduction Utopian Fic Hyperessay Bibliography

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