Wells was so dissatisfied with this novel that he rewrote and re-issued it a decade later as The Sleeper Awakes (1910). His preface to that revised edition calls it ‘one of the most ambitious and least satisfactory of my books,’ and talks about how he was ‘overworked, and badly in need of a holiday’ when he wrote it. In point of fact Wells was writing Love and Mr Lewisham concurrently with this one and was just as dissatisfied with that novel, later recalling ‘the impotent rage and strain of my attempt to put some sort of finish to my story of Mr Lewisham with my temperature at a hundred and two’. The difference was that he held back Love and Mr Lewisham to rewrite, during his convalescence, whereas fiduciary necessity compelled him to publish When the Sleeper Wakes in its original and unsatisfactory form. In the Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells gives us some details about the 1898 illness: ‘a sort of break-up,’ he calls it, ‘of the scars and old clotted accumulations about my crushed kidney’, which I really don't think is an actual medical thing (he had damaged the kidney playing football when working as a schoolmaster in the 1880s). He goes on:
Nothing could have been worse for me than to start, as we [Wells and wife Jane] did, upon a cycling journey to the south coast ... I plugged along with a head that seemed filled with wool and a skin that felt like a misfit. Somewhere on the road I caught a cold.The finest traditions of English holidaying! Things got so bad Jane took the feverish and agonized Wells by train to a New Romney doctor (‘I was now in considerable pain, the jolting carriages seemed malignantly uncomfortable, I suffered from intense thirst, I could get nothing to drink and the journey was interminable’). The doctor insisted on the immediate removal of the injured kidney, and a surgeon was called down from London to perform this operation; but when he arrived it was discovered ‘that the offending kidney had practically taken itself off and that there was nothing left to remove’. This really strains credulity (I mean, where did the infected, or perhaps necrosing, kidney go? Did Scotty beam it directly out of his body?) At any rate Wells health improved, and he claims he was never again bothered with the kidney. Hmm.
It's worth considering whether the original version of Sleeper catches any of this quality of fever-dream. I think it does. At any rate, finished to Wells's satisfaction or not, the story was serialised in The Graphic 1898-99, together with some rather fine illustrations by Henri Lanos, several of which are copied into this blogpost. Harper put out a single volume edition early in 1899.
The story itself starts with a man called Isbister, walking the Cornish cliffs and chancing upon our hero, Graham, driven to suicidal despair by his chronic insomnia. Isbister persuades him not to jump, but instead to come back to his hotel with him. There, for reasons unspecified in the text, Graham falls into a kind of coma:
He was removed from the hotel to the Boscastle surgery, and from the surgery, after some weeks, to London. But he still resisted every attempt at reanimation. After a time, for reasons that will appear later, these attempts were discontinued. For a great space he lay in that strange condition, inert and still neither dead nor living but, as it were, suspended, hanging midway between nothingness and existence. His was a darkness unbroken by a ray of thought or sensation, a dreamless inanition, a vast space of peace. The tumult of his mind had swelled and risen to an abrupt climax of silence. Where was the man? Where is any man when insensibility takes hold of him?Graham sleeps for two centuries, during which time his own money, and certain hefty inheritances, accrue interest in the banking system. When he finally does awake he discovers that his (now) vast wealth has rendered him nominal master of the world. His sleeping form, held in a crystal cabinet, is the centre of a kind of cult, on the basis of which the ‘White Council’, a small group of men who have inherited trustee status for his estate, rule the globe. Since their power depends on the endless deferral of his waking, this Council are understandably put-out when Graham returns from the land of nod.
They plan on killing him, but before they can he is rescued by followers of a revolutionary leader called Ostrog (we later discover that it was Ostrog who woke Graham, by injecting him with stimulants). During the course of his flight from the Council Graham sees that London is now a huge domed urban space: ‘Titanic buildings, curving spaciously in either direction. Overhead mighty cantilevers sprang together across the huge width of the place, and a tracery of translucent material shut out the sky. Gigantic globes of cool white light shamed the pale sunbeams that filtered down through the girders and wires. Here and there a gossamer suspension bridge dotted with foot passengers flung across the chasm and the air was webbed with slender cables.’
Using Graham's awakening as rallying-point, Ostrog stages a revolution and overthrows the Council. He pretends to install Graham as ruler, but in fact, of course, he wants power for himself and manipulates Graham as his puppet. For a while Graham is duped, and beguiles his time exploring the high-tech future world: Britain now a land of huge automated farmlands, with the entire population living inside four huge domed cities, each powered by giant wind-vanes. He learns to fly one of the future's aeroplanes, ‘aeropiles’ Wells calls them, discovering in the process a natural aeronautical talent. He also develops tender feelings for Ostrog's attractive niece, Helen Wotton: ‘her beauty came compellingly between him and certain immediate temptations of ignoble passion’ [Sleeper, ch. 17]. Oho! It is Helen who reveals the truth to Graham: far from being the future utopia Ostrog claims, the world of 2100 is a place of misery for the masses who toil in factories, paid in food rather than money, suffering high rates of industrial disease and mortality, alienated from family life (children are raised in enormous institutions) and controlled via fake-news-spewing ‘babble machines’. Other systems of control include ‘kine-tele-photography’ and occasional visits to ‘pleasure cities’. Graham confronts Ostrog, who defends the status quo on eugenic grounds:
“Aristocracy, the prevalence of the best—the suffering and extinction of the unfit, and so to better things.”Graham leads a counter-revolution against Ostrog and expels him from London; but Ostrog recruits a new police force all the way from Africa, flying them over to act as his enforcers. In a moment that has aged very badly, Graham is appalled by this development: ‘“I am the Master. I do not want any negroes brought to London. It is an archaic prejudice perhaps, but I have peculiar feelings about Europeans and the subject races. Even about Paris—”’ [ch 19] Nonetheless, the African planes are on their way, and a battle ensues between Ostrog's followers and Graham's for control of the runways, the ‘stages’ as Wells calls them, that would enable this force to land. Graham himself goes up in an aeropile to hold the Africans back until the stages are destroyed:
“But aristocracy! those people I met—”
“Oh! not those!” said Ostrog. “But for the most part they go to their death. Vice and pleasure! They have no children. That sort of stuff will die out. If the world keeps to one road, that is, if there is no turning back. An easy road to excess, convenient Euthanasia for the pleasure seekers singed in the flame, that is the way to improve the race!” [Sleeper, ch 19]
Ostrog is also up, and Graham attempts to engage him in air-to-air combat, although without success. But it seems his side is winning:
He passed two hundred feet or so above the Roehampton stage. It was black with people and noisy with their frantic shouting. But why was the Wimbledon Park stage black and cheering, too? The smoke and flame of Streatham now hid the three further stages. He curved about and rose to see them and the northern quarters. First came the square masses of Shooter’s Hill into sight from behind the smoke, lit and orderly with the aeroplane that had landed and its disembarking negroes. Then came Blackheath, and then under the corner of the reek the Norwood stage. On Blackheath no aeroplane had landed but an aeropile lay upon the guides. Norwood was covered by a swarm of little figures running to and fro in a passionate confusion. Why? Abruptly he understood. The stubborn defence of the flying stages was over, the people were pouring into the under-ways of these last strongholds of Ostrog’s usurpation. And then, from far away on the northern border of the city, full of glorious import to him, came a sound, a signal, a note of triumph, the leaden thud of a gun. [Sleeper, ch. 24]That thud is Graham's people finally getting the anti-aircraft guns working. ‘“They win,” he shouted to the empty air; “the people win!”’ He doesn't get long to enjoy his triumph, though:—his craft is caught by the edge of an explosion and the novel ends with him plummeting to his death.
Wells's jumping-off point for this novel was the remarkable (indeed, staggering) success of Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1886), in which a young man called Julian West falls asleep in 1880s USA and awakes 113 years later to a socialist utopia North America. Bellamy's book, dramatically inert and tediously preachy though it is, was a massive hit: over a million copies were sold, more than 160 Nationalist Clubs formed to propagate the book's ideas, and a Nationalist Party was established that looked, for a while, as if it might have a real shot at contesting the US Presidency. It's hard to think of any novel, SF or otherwise, that had such widespread and immediate an impact. One aspect of this success was a swarm of unofficial sequels and rebuttals that appeared in the decades that followed, all inhabiting the same ‘rip-van-winkle-sleeper-wakes-to-future-utopia’ trope: there are, it seems, over 150 of these, including William Morris's News From Nowhere (1890), in which a character called William Guest falls asleep and wakes in a future utopia modelled on labouring-agrarian, rather than Bellamy's technological-urban, lines. Wells's novel is also in explicit dialogue with Looking Backward—Bellamy gets name-checked early on in When the Sleeper Wakes, when Isbister is discussing Graham's case with his friend Warming: ‘“It’s Rip Van Winkle come real.” “It’s Bellamy,” said Warming’ [Sleeper, ch. 2]. The thing that makes Wells's intervention into this crowded genre new is its pessimism. His twist is different to the one preferred his friend Morris: revealing not a different mode of utopia but utopia itself as sham, actual dystopia. Instead of wandering the gleaming world amazed at its myriad wonders, Wells's protagonist discovers the grim truth beneath the veneer of technological advance: exploitation and oppression.
The 1910 revision, The Sleeper Awakes, is essentially the same book slimmed down: about 6000 words are cut from the first edition (the later edition has 25 to the first edition's 24 chapters, but that's because the original's chapter 23 is cut into two; fairly long chunks are pruned from chapters 14, 16, 21 and 23). There are various smaller adjustments—for instance, Wells changes ‘aeropile’ to ‘monoplane’ throughout—and two more substantive changes. One is that, by 1910, Wells had come to regret what he called ‘the obvious vulgarity’ of ‘making a “love interest” out of Helen and Graham’. He changes this in the new edition on the, it seems to me interesting grounds, that, technically, Graham is 200 years older than the girl: ‘not the slightest intimation of any sexual interest could in truth have arisen between these two. They loved and kissed one another, but as a girl and her heroic grandfather might love.’ The other big revision is an elimination of the earlier book's political-revolutionary optimism, however obliquely that was framed: ‘I have also, with a few strokes of the pen, eliminated certain dishonest and regrettable suggestions that the People beat Ostrog. My Graham dies, as all his kind must die, with no certainty of either victory or defeat.’ Unsmiley face.
So what to say about this novel? Critics make great claims for it, at least in terms of its influence. According to Leon Stover, Sleeper ‘is the one single source inspiring all the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century, from We to Brave New World to Nineteen Eighty-Four’ [Leon Stover When the Sleeper Wakes: a Critical Text of the 1899 New York and London First Edition (McFarland 2000), 12]. In this he is following Mark Hillegas’s The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (OUP 1967), which argues that Sleeper provides the basic template for subsequent iterations of this kind of story, famous and otherwise, with all the now-familiar story-props, conceits and settings: ‘the enclosed super-city, the disappearance of the family, the elimination of privacy, the degradation of the working class, the use of “kine-tele-photography” and “babble machines” for propaganda, pleasure cities, euthanasia, and mental surgery’. All that is certainly striking. The most obvious comparator—Brave New World—necessarily suffers in terms of its belatedness. And yet Huxley's novel, though of course chronologically epigone, seems to me much the superior piece of fiction. I think this has to do with the way Wells hoists a melodramatic plot of political machination and deceit, burgeoning love, war and aerial jousting, on his dystopian speculation. However fun this is to read, it strikes a rather more puerile note than Huxley's more considered explorations of the fascistic logic of regimented social pleasure as such. Put it this way: Brave New World adopts the form of a mature philosophical novel (all that earnest dialogue between the Savage and Mustapha Mond!) to dramatise a fundamental infantilisation of society, where Wells's novel uses the infantile form of the adventure story to attempt a more serious critique of encroaching fascism. His later en-grim-mening of the story's political moral, stressing the impotence of individuals like Graham against the oppressive political logic of figures like Ostrog, strikes me as a belated reaction to this. There's an enduring bias in our culture that dystopias, from Airstrip One to Westeros, are more ‘serious’ than utopias. I can't for the life of me think why.
I suppose it's unfair to judge Wells by a novel that was, as he published his, three decades away from even being written. Perhaps we should talk instead of the book's patent Arthurian intertext. Because of course one of the things Wells is doing in When the Sleeper Wakes is recasting Arthurian romance as science fiction. Sleeper starts on the Cornish cliffs near Boscastle; which is to say, just along the coast from Tintagel. Graham (an important politician in his own day; which is to say, a kind of national leader) sleeps, as Arthur is said to sleep in the Isle of Avalon, until his time should come again. The whole future-romance, then, is reconfigured Arthuriana: planes instead of steeds, Ostrog playing Mordred's part at the last battle that must, of course, kill them both. Helen Wotton says to Graham, ‘a faint colour [creeping] back to her cheek’: ‘“Do you know that you have been to myriads—King Arthur ... the King who would come in his own good time and put the world right for them”’ [Sleeper, ch. 18]. Graham's failure might represent the deadness of this chivalric ideal, but I prefer a different reading. Ostrog makes the comparison as explicit: ‘The day of the common man is past. The first real aristocracy, the first permanent aristocracy, came in with castles and armour, and vanished before the musket and bow. But this is the second aristocracy. The real one ... The common man now is a helpless unit. In these days we have this great machine of the city, and an organisation complex beyond his understanding.’ For all its glamour, the legend of King Arthur was a fascist fable, the military fuhrer who brings order and piece because he organically embodies the land he rules.
We could say that both Wells and Huxley recognised fascism for the socially functional puerility it is, even if I'd say Huxley found a better fictional form for expressing that core ideological truth than did Wells—better because Brave New World as novel is able to distance itself from the juvenile satisfactions of sex and soma, where Sleeper gets rather caught-up in all the surface thrills and spills, the running around and aerial dogfights. Adorno, in characteristically gloomy mood, speculated about ‘the coming extinction of art’, something he saw ‘prefigured in the increasing impossibility of representing historical events’:
That there is no adequate drama about Fascism is not due to lack of talent; talent is withering through the insolubility of the writer's most urgent task. He has to choose between two principles, both equally inappropriate to the subject: psychology and infantilism. [Adorno, Minima Moralia  (translated E F N Jephcott; Verso 1974), 143]Stripping out the sex makes Wells's story even more the young-person's adventure yarn. And though the book is full of ingenious extrapolation about modes of social control, its power politics is curiously flat and abstract: the ‘people’ mob facelessly for, or against, Ostrog; the final battle is a toy-soldiers contest between undifferentiated Londoners en masse and an entirely abstracted corps of black African ‘policeman’ flying-in. Not that this is exactly a failing in the novel. It speaks to the fascistic logic of this mode of absolutism, the reduction of the complexities and intersectional individualities of real history to heroic representative figures and abstracted quantities. ‘It is the essential abstractness of what really happens which rebuts the aesthetic image,’ laments Adorno. ‘To make this abstractness expressible at all, the writer is forced to translate it into a kind of children's language, into archetypes, and so a second time to “bring it home”...’ Ostrog is not a character; he is the embodiment of Wellsian pessimism about the likelihood of future history diverting into purely authoritarian forms—sleepwalking, we might say, into disaster. Hence the appositeness of Wells's ‘sleeper’ conceit, however shonky Bellamy's narrative device is liable to strike us now. (‘It is hard to escape the sense,’ John Clute and David Langford rightly note, ‘that the sleeper-awakes structure betrayed, even before the beginning of the twentieth century, an undue fastidiousness of imagination, and that some straightforward magic, like a time machine, might always have been a more elegant option.’) Dystopia measures the gap between the present and utopian possibilities. For Wells the body politic dozes and mutters on its uncomfortable bed, when it should awake and seize the future.
Why does Graham's adversary have so bizarre a name as ‘Ostrog’, when other people in 2100 have much more conventional names, like ‘Helen Wotton’? It's almost too obviously a cipher: ‘Ost’, German for ‘East’, in straightforward dystopian opposition to Bellamy's utopian surname ‘Julian West’; and ‘rog’ for ... who? ‘There is a queer little twist in my private vanity,’ Wells says, in the Experiment in Autiobiography, ‘which disposes me at times to parallel my lot with Roger Bacon's’. How so?
Bacon in his cell scribbling away at those long dissertations of his about a new method of knowledge, which never even reached, much less influenced, the one sole reader [but] which nevertheless in the course of a few centuries came to the fullest fruition. I play at being such a man as he was, a man altogether lonely and immediately futile, a man lit by a vision of a world still some centuries ahead, convinced of its reality and urgency, and yet powerless to bring it nearer.And the relevance to When the Sleeper Wakes?
The thoughts of Roger Bacon were like a dream that comes before dawn and is almost forgotten again. The sleeper turns over and sleeps on. All that Roger Bacon wrote was like humanity talking in its sleep. What is happening now is by comparison an awakening.‘Ostrog’ is the widdershins, ‘eastern’ (as opposed to Bellamyesque ‘west’-ern) embodiment of these Rogerian dreams, the bad possibilities of sheer oppression. And if I had to put it in a nutshell I'd say the limitations of Sleeper as a novel devolve upon the aesthetic blankness of those very possibilities. Last Adorno quotation for today:
The impossibility of portraying Fascism springs from the fact that in it, as in its contemplation, subjective freedom no longer exists. Total unfreedom can be recognised, but not represented. [Minima Moralia, 144]Wells was too canny a writer not to recognise the extent to which Sleeper butts its head awkwardly against this limit. He could see it didn't really work as a novel, although its problems are closely intertwined with the grounds of its success—a success measured in terms of influence. In 1910 Wells tried reworking it, without really solving the problems. By 1934, as he wrote his Autobiography, he seems to have decided that the problem was that his mode of extrapolation had been, as it were, too flat:
The future depicted in the Time Machine was a mere fantasy based on the idea of the human species developing about divergent lines, but the future in When the Sleeper Awakes was essentially an exaggeration of contemporary tendencies: higher buildings, bigger towns, wickeder capitalists and labour more down-trodden than ever and more desperate. Everything was bigger, quicker and more crowded; there was more and more flying and the wildest financial speculation. It was our contemporary world in a state of highly inflamed distension ... I suppose that is the natural line for an imaginative writer to take, in an age of material progress and political sterility. Until he thinks better of it.Thinking better means imagining qualitative, rather than just quantitative, change. But this does not negate the possibility that the future was indeed going to be a fascistic-authoritarian ‘highly inflamed distension’ of contemporary logics of commercialisation, authoritarianism and so on. And with ‘highly inflamed distension’ we seem to have returned to Wells's malfunctioning kidney, all the way back in 1898.
There is another reading of this novel with which I want, briefly, to conclude; one I think it likely Wells knowingly included in his story, although one that has been, so far as I can see, entirely neglected by the critics. So: we can of course read Sleeper as a representation of one possible future world extrapolated from Wells's own time into the twenty-second century. But we can also read this novel as Wells consciously Pincher-Martining his own fantasia. This would explain why Wells opens with his long, rather halting first chapter in which Isbister chances upon a suicidal Graham, loitering on a Cornish clifftop. Sleeper starts with Graham contemplating jumping to his death below, and ends with Graham plummeting precipitously to his death. What happens in between can be read as either the results of Graham sleeping for two centuries and waking to spend time in a future world, or else as a mode of vivid hallucination experienced by a dying man.
To be clear: it doesn't seem to me that either of these readings needs to drive out the other. Wells has written the book, carefully, so that either is viable. In the latter case, the series of revolutions in which Graham is involved in future-London—first by waking, then overthrowing the Council and installing Ostrog, and then overthrowing Ostrog and fighting off his counter-revolution—can be read as fantastical iterations of Graham literally tumbling as he falls (as Isbister leads him back to the hotel, supposedly having foiled his suicide, Graham complains of dizziness: “Spin, spin into the darkness ... It goes round. Spin, it goes—spin—”). Nor should it surprise us that Graham's fevered, dying mind turns literal revolutions in the air into metaphorical revolutions in the world. From Isbister (notionally old, now, as Graham has slumbered for decades) we learn that
he [Graham] was a man of considerable gifts, but spasmodic, emotional. He had grave domestic troubles, divorced his wife, in fact, and it was as a relief from that, I think, that he took up politics of the rabid sort. He was a fanatical Radical—a Socialist—or typical Liberal, as they used to call themselves, of the advanced school. Energetic—flighty—undisciplined. Overwork upon a controversy did this for him. I remember the pamphlet he wrote—a curious production. Wild, whirling stuff. There were one or two prophecies.Grahams's Pincher Martin-y vision naturally elaborates his politically-prophetic obsessions, fleshing them out (as Golding's Martin's also do) into a whole slice of lived-experience. When he wakes in 2100, Graham is initially unsure where he is, and hears ‘a noise rise and fall, like the murmur of breakers on pebbles’ [Sleeper, ch 3]. This turns out to be the distant sound of the great crowd that has gathered at the news of the waking sleeper; but it, and later mighty susurrations, like the spinning of the great wind vanes, could be the sound of Cornish surf infiltrating itself into Graham's dying consciousness, just as the winged ‘monoplanes’ could be seabirds, and the domed cities the sky itself: Graham's first words to Isbister are an instruction to ‘Look at that sea that has shone and quivered there for ever! And this blue vault, with the blinding sun pouring from the dome of it. It is your world.’ In this reading the sleep from which we sleepers need to awaken is life itself. Wake up! the novel is saying. Abre los ojos!