A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the month “November, 2013”

Who is Superior? Bulwer-Lytton’s Anxieties About America

Coming-Race-webresThough most infamous, perhaps, for giving the literary world ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) is arguably his most famous novel,one that turns the table on traditional imperialism, and is also, strangely, set in the US (Bulwer-Lytton was British). His uses of imperialistic, utopian and spiritual themes are echoed in nearly all American terra cava novels to follow, and the contemporary reviews of many of these novels used The Coming Race as the standard against which they are measured. It is interesting that Bulwer-Lytton, one of the few hollow earth authors to come from outside the US, would choose to write from an American perspective (even jokingly refers to the narrator’s father’s run for Congress being unsuccessful against his own tailor).

The narrator first introduces himself with some basic biographical information to establish his character and reliability as narrator, the traditional son of a well-to-do, respected family. Though how the narrator comes to this place is explained, it is not the process of a journey, but a quick accident, eliding over the long descriptions of travel often seen in other narratives of this type. Symmesian geography is not being employed, but rather the Vernian semi-porous world of Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The civilisation (Vril-ya) we meet is utopian, and explained in detail according to Bulwer-Lytton’s own experiences as a Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for the Colonies. Like so many other utopian novels of the time, the Vril-ya society abstains from alcohol and the consumption of meat. Poverty is unknown and the sciences abound, technology being the linchpin of their civilsation. Upon first entering the city Tesh (as our narrator comes to be called, and to whom I mentally append the given name of ‘John’) is introduced to automatons of semi-human form who respond to Vril-ya commands given by the touch of a staff, and lifts – which were a new technology in Bulwer-Lytton’s time (p. 27). The wings of the Vril-ya are not biological, but actually mechanical (p.36) – a feature which may have been inspired by Robert Patlock’s The Life & Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornish Man (1751), which featured mechanical flight on the part of native inhabitants of the South Pole.

From the first moment a member of the Vril-ya race is met, we know that they are rich, and that they are powerful. Tesh describes the first sight of the beautiful creatures which ‘roused that instinct of danger which the sight of a tiger or serpent arouses’ (p. 25), even though this ‘creature’ was also adorned in a tiara of jewels (p. 24), letting the reader know this is no savage. Riches abound everywhere; when Tesh enters the home of his rescuer, even concussed he does not fail to take notice of the ‘Oriental splendour; the walls were tessellated with spars, and metals, and uncut jewels’ (p. 27). This is the wealth of America that Bulwer-Lytton fears, writing as he did in the years following the California gold rush; wealth so abundant that its possessors have little regard for it. Wealth that develops technology. Where European scientists specialised in developing scientific theories, Americans pushed further ahead in technological development.

The description of the appearance of the Vril-ya echoes imperialist language, how they possessed the ‘gravity and quietude of Orientals’ with ‘dark eyes and red man’s colour’ (p. 28). But instead of their non-white appearance being a mark of inferiority, they inspire dread in Tesh (despite their apparent kindness) because he senses that they ‘could have killed me as easily as a man can kill a bird or butterfly’ (p. 29). Our narrator experiences what it is like to be viewed as a lower form of life, when he is on the streets and examined with the curiosity of some ‘rare wild animal’ (p. 31). A mark of the Vril-ya superiority is their disgust at any ‘vehement emotional demonstration’ (p. 34), a parallel to the British ideal of the ‘stiff upper lip’. Tesh is also told that though he is obviously not part of the barbarian tribes existing under the earth, he obviously does not ‘belong to any civilised people’ either (p. 42). He is caught between two worlds, old and new, as Bulwer-Lytton and other Englishmen may have felt. The British empire may have been at its pinnacle in 1871, but the United States was rapidly spreading across the American continent at the same time. The new wealth found in the West allowed Americans to begin reversing the travel of their ancestors, taking boats back to Europe for long tours of history and culture.

American exceptionalism is heavily satirised by Bulwer-Lytton in Tesh’s explanation to the Vril-ya about his origins, ‘to expiate on the present grandeur and prospective pre-eminence of that glorious American Republic’ and its bright future in which ‘the flag of freedom should float over an entire contient, and two hundred millions of intelligent citizens, accustomed from infancy to the daily use of revolvers, should apply to a cowering universe the doctrine of the Patriot Monroe’[1] (p. 44).  The Vril-ya hosts are horrified by everything they hear from Tesh about the US, and make him swear to never repeat this description to anyone. At the same time, Bulwer-Lytton is expressing his own – British – anxiety about Great Britain losing its superior place in the world to the Americans, who are truly the ‘coming race’. Possessed of a military that twice beat the British, and producing some of the most advanced armaments in the world, the U.S. – should it choose to exercise that power – would have threatened British hegemony.

The Vril-ya are endowed with mystical powers via their use of Vril. The breath of a boy on Tesh’s forehead ceases the pain from his concussion and puts him into a restorative sleep (p. 28). On page 35, Tesh refers to the Vril-ya as something like the ‘Peri’ of Middle Eastern myth, beautiful creatures descended from fallen who could be both benevolent and malevolent. The first time he ever witnesses their flying dance, Tesh is overcome with the belief that he has seen some form of witchcraft and panics (p. 36) much like other explorers who have perceived demonic action in the practices of newly encountered races. He is reacting without rationality, which marks him as inferior. ‘The Coming Race – both the title and the book’s ominous concluding phrase – reflects a long-standing interest of Bulwer-Lytton’s, the occult, here given pseudo-scientific dressing, and his somewhat confused cogitations on the theory of evolution’ (Brain Aldiss, ‘Introduction’ to The Coming Race, p. 5-6).

Interestingly, as ridiculous as it may seem to the modern reader, there were many in the nineteenth century who took the novel to be non-fiction, demonstrating the pervasiveness of the belief in interior life, technological advancement and spiritualist powers. Followers of Theosophy embraced the novel and the powerful magic substance of Vril, which become synonymous with life and virility. Marketers used it to christen and sell Bovril in Great Britain, heedless of the warning that Bulwer-Lytton was trying to put across, that the Americans are the Vril-ya and they are coming to supersede the British.

[1] A reference to the Monroe Doctrine of President James Monroe, who insisted that no further colonial action by European powers should take place in the Americas, and America would stay out of European affairs; a political stance the US maintained for generations.

The Wise Man of the Desert


Adam Roberts, the award-winning British science fiction author, sure loved his desert settings early in his writing career. He even admits it:

“This is what I’ve been thinking. My last three novels, SnowGradisil and [Land of the] Headless, are all–I can see, now–desert novels. A desert of water ice; a desert of orbital vacuum; a desert of the soul; and in all three cases the concomitant mental and emotional sensibilities, and aesthetics. In a way these three novels represent a sort-of trilogy, a thematic trilogy; and they are accordingly and necessarily rather barren. I can hardly complain if people find this offputting.”[1]

Roberts has indeed struggled with some reviewers and readers finding his novels “offputting”, perhaps because the readers and reviewers do not know how to approach his works. Roberts does not write space opera or thrillers, the kind of SF that seems to predominate; he writes what others have identified as Menippean satire.[2] For those unfamiliar with the concept, we will use Northrop Frye’s definition of the genre:

“The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylised rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.”[3]

This means that when Roberts is called “The king of high-concept SF” (that was Jon Courtenay-Grimwood of The Guardian, a piece of praise now used on most of the covers of Roberts’s novels) it is his ideas being lauded and not necessarily his plots. Roberts employs characters that are not often likeable and have a tendency to perhaps stretch the truth, lying to us as well as themselves. The situations in which the characters find themselves can be extreme to the point of the absurd. But that is the point of satire, to call out the ideas and philosophies of our everyday lives in order to highlight their possibly ridiculous nature. So what does this have to do with deserts?

A quick review of the various deserts Roberts used in his novels:

1) Salt (2000) is a novel about warring religious fundamentalists on a new colony world called – obviously – Salt, because the planet is a desert of salt.

2) The Snow (2004) is a novel about the icy apocalypse of Earth, buried under three miles of snow, and the handful of survivors who find themselves  under the control of a totalitarian US military government in a desert of snow that may not be snow at all.

3) Gradisil (2006) is a novel about the settlement of Earth’s orbit by the wealthy that have escaped a decaying planet, living in a desert of vacuum.

4) Land of the Headless (2007) is the story of a decapitated (yet still living thanks to technological intervention) poet/criminal who passes through not just a “desert of the soul” as Roberts says, but a literal desert of sand and the desert of the battlefield.

So again, why deserts?

Because it is the barrenness of these landscapes that allow the ideas being espoused to stand in sharp relief. World-building is an extensive part of the SF novum, but it is much easier to build a world of ideas when you do not have to carry on about the biologic and geologic formations of your world. Roberts’s characters are allowed to inhabit their philosophies in the emptiness of a desert rather than being inhabited by the lushness of a jungle. Satire – and especially Menippean satire – cannot afford to be dragged down by descriptions of a physical world when there is a mental world to be explored; chess is played on a plane of only two alternating colours (well, unless you have one of those 3-D Star Trek chess sets) so that you can move swiftly across the board. For Roberts, writing in a desert provides the same advantage, decluttering the environmentally abstract in favour of the philosophically certain. Not that Roberts was necessarily aware of this repetition in setting for his first several novels:

“It might seem a little belated on my part, only now to be seeing larger patterns in the way my books are coming out. But then again, writing is a balance between what the writer plans and what emerges… Perhaps there’s some tectonic shifting happening under my very own feet, and I’m only slowly becoming aware of it. Maybe, and without directly informing me, my creative imagination has had enough of deserts for the time being.”[4]

Roberts has moved on from his desert novels into far more verdant worlds, his satire becoming more subtle in its send-up of our strange human ways. But there is still a wise man lurking in the deserts or the fields of England or the streets of Moscow trying to tell us a truth about what it is to be human, warning us against the fanatical, the dictatorial, and the fallacious. 

[2] Paul Kincaid, “Learning to Read Adam Roberts”, http://bigother.com/2011/03/05/learning-to-read-adam-roberts/

[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (London: penguin Books, 1957), p. 309.

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