Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells

I always seem to join in the Vulpes Libris Theme Weeks with the caveat that I don’t usually get on with the theme in question – c.f. our weeks on poetry and historical fiction – but I have a little more experience with science-fiction than with either of those. It’s still certainly not a genre I would turn to as much as (say) your common-or-garden literary fiction – but it wasn’t a surprise to find The Sleeper Awakes (1910) waiting on my shelf. And in rather a lovely edition, from The Literary Press, whoever they were.

The opening scene of The Sleeper Awakes sees a young artist named Mr Isbister wandering around Boscastle in the late 19th-century. He is a cheerful chap, and disconcerted to come across a man looking miserable on the beach. This gentleman alleges that he hasn’t slept for six days – his perpetual exhaustion seems to stem from some unhappy relationship, and he talks in rather elevated tones:

“I am a lone wolf, a solitary man, wandering through a world in which I have no part. I am wifeless – childless – who is it speaks of the childless as the dead twigs on the tree of life? I am wifeless, childless – I could find no duty to do. No desire even in my heart. One thing at last I set myself to do.

And so on he goes. There is some rather fab comedy in this section, as Isbister meets these elaborate pronouncements with “I see”, and various other fairly hapless, well-meant advice. Isbister was a fun, insouciant character, and the contract was amusing. Sadly this is more or less the last time we see him.

For – as the title rather led us to suspect – the man, with the rather unheroic name of Graham, does fall asleep. And he sleeps and sleeps. For 203 years, to be precise. By the time he finally wakes up, the world has changed dramatically – while he has barely aged (and seems to have retained use of his limbs, which are nothing worse than slightly shaky).

It’s quite odd, reading this novel halfway between the time it was published and the world it envisages. Some of it has come true – planes, for one thing (though, sneakily, powered flight had become a thing between the late 19th century and 1910 – i.e. between the earliest setting and publication of this novel), and a device surprisingly similar to an iPad. Other bits haven’t quite come true yet – the demolition of all buildings in the countryside; the replacement of London with moving walkways on various levels; a curious predilection for wearing robes at all times.

Graham wakes to discover that he is under the control of The Council – a sort-of parliament – but also that he is supposedly the most powerful person in the world. His investments have been steadily growing over 203 years, and he is impossibly rich – and almost a deity to England, or at least a sort of mythological figure. He’s found his way into phrase and fable (“When the sleeper awakes” is a saying meaning ‘never’), but plenty of people believe he died ages ago.

Much of the novel – probably about two-thirds of it – seems to be Graham escaping from the Council with the aid of Ostrog and a band of rebels, and then (in turn) getting lost in the midst of a counter-battle. There’s a lot of rushing about, with descriptions of the changing landscape he sees. Even after he finds himself independent, after the counter-battle, much of what happens is Graham visiting workers or talking to an old man, and learning more about the situation the world is in. There’s precious little about character development or human interaction.

This is probably why I shy away from science-fiction: so much of it (in my limited experience) is about setting the stage – about showing us what the world is, rather it is dystopian future or parallel universe or whatever. A non-genre novel can start “It was a bright, cold morning in London on 1 January 1920”, and we pretty much know where we are. We’re ready for the novel to begin. Sci-fi – though Wells’ novel is a worst case scenario – has to set up the world, and this is (to me) wasted time. I don’t care whether or not they have moving walkways, or what they wear, or what they’ve invented. I want to read about people and how they relate to each other and what they experience. That, for me, is always the heart of a novel – the rest is set dressing.

And of course science-fiction can do all of that, even if it takes a bit longer to get there. But Wells doesn’t. Graham has changed completely from the first time we see him, but all he has changed into is a man who quite likes power and doesn’t much want to be killed.

There is a pivotal plot ‘twist’ that is so obvious that it is barely deserving of the name, and this leads us to – yawn – another battle/escape situation. Much, much worse – and the worst part of the novel – the ultimate heroic moment for Graham is based in crude racism. It’s super, super racist, guys. It felt pretty horrible to read, not least because the racism is part of the counter-attack to the dystopia, rather than part of the utopia itself. Um, no thanks Wells.

So this wasn’t a great success for me. But I’m hoping I can find another Wells novel that takes the humour of the first ten pages or so, and turns that into a full-length novel. Perhaps he should have stuck to the real, present world.

2 comments on “The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells

  1. Pingback: Ursula Orange and H.G. Wells – Stuck in a Book

  2. SilverSeason
    May 5, 2017

    Like you I was disappointed in this book which has a very scattershot plot and not very interesting characters. On the other hand, Wells did write some very good sci fi. I recommed The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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