LOOKING BACKWARD, or: THE MARCHING MORONS

Review by Joseph T Major of

The Annotated H. G. Wells: Volume 5: WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES:

A Critical Text of the 1899 New York and London First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices

edited by Leon Stover

(McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 26840; 1-800-253-2187; www.mcfarlandpub.com;

ISBN 0-7684-0666-6: $55.00)



One of the standard plots of SF is that of the sleeper who awakes, whether sent forward in time by stasis (Beyond This Horizon (Heinlein; 1942, 1948), World of Ptavvs (Niven; 1966)), cryogenic suspension (The Age of the Pussyfoot (Pohl; 1969), The Door into Summer (Heinlein; 1956, 1957)), relativity (The Long Way Home (Anderson; 1955, 1975), A World out of Time (Niven; 1976)), or who-knows-what ("Two Dooms" (1958) and "The Marching Morons" (1951), both by Kornbluth). It makes the standardized Gernsbackian-Sloneian trope "As you know . . ." unnecessary, because the point-of-view character really doesn't know about the world he is in, and has to be told everything (very convenient for the reader, all the same).

Utopian novels had had a different approach to the situation. From Utopia (1516, 1551) itself to Skinner's Walden Two (1948), the methodology was simple; people from the uncouth anarchistic world outside (Hythodlaye, Burrhus) came to the Good Place, had everything explained to them, and went away enthralled.

Of course, these approaches could be combined. As for example in Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), where the insomniac narrator Julian West finds that he had overslept quite a bit.

Utopian novels, furthermore, generally have the problem that the author generally finds it impossible to imagine that anyone of any sense could reject his wonderful concept. Therefore, where there is conflict, it comes about because of a Sinister Conspiracy intent at Defending the Established Interests from the New Age of Harmony (i.e., Love Me Tomorrow (Rimmer; 1977), The General's President (Dalmas; 1988)).

So what happens when the Established Interests are the Utopians?

Professor Stover has continued his necessary but thankless task (already there are mutterings of "Stoverism" among the Wellsian cognoscenti, just as "de Camp" is a curse word for the Lovecraftian inner cultists) of annotating these fundamental and trailblazing works of science fiction, showing the social contexts in which they were created, increasing thereby the reader's comprehension. When the Sleeper Wakes is not the most famous of them, yet it more clearly delineates his thinking. It is a utopian novel where the counterrevolution loses but the protagonist is the counterrevolutionary.

Stover's work includes highlighting some things that have not been particularly noticed previously. For example, When the Sleeper Wakes is a sequel. Where did the beginnings of the corporate conglomeration of the world come from? From the Martians. When the Sleeper Wakes is the sequel to The War of the Worlds. [p. 82] (Bad news for the enthusiastic world-rebuilders of Kevin J. Anderson's The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches (1998).)

But for the initially anonymous Sleeper-to-be, Martians are still on Mars when he takes his nap. One thing that cheerful Fans like Ackerman slough off is Wells's strong political subtext. The Sleeper is utterly exhausted when he comes to Cornwall to begin his rest. He has worn himself out with the brain-cracking task of writing Marxist propaganda, and, without a friendly Soviet Union to pay for his work, needs a long rest in order to recover.

So he sleeps. And sleeps. And sleeps. Meanwhile, some entrepreneurs deprived of heirs decide on a convenient means to keep their fortunes together, by leaving it all to Graham the Sleeper. (This is presumably to get around the problem described by Stover in the notes of the limitations on postmortem trusts (p. 84 n13).) Why, for example, there wasn't instead an Isbister "red-brick" university (actually, of course, of clean white porcelain) is left to the reader's realization that there wouldn't be a story if there were.

As a different sort of exploration of this theme, Harry Stephen Keeler wrote "John Jones' Dollar" (1915), about a man who deposited a dollar in trust for his senior male descendant one thousand years later, when it would be worth something like $9,177,296,646,844 making some assumptions about the compounding. As of now it would be worth more like $12.18 but because of inflation, that would be worth on the order of $1 in 1915 values.

And the conversation by former comrades, now conglomerated millionaire Isbister and trustee Warming, touches on several problems of society and the man. The roads must roll at Isbister's bidding, though whether the road engineers will stage a functionalist revolt against him is another matter. With a constraint on the growth of the money supply, corporate interests are finding it desirable to merge.

(Again, like most writers, Wells did not predict inflation and its consequences. To take one such example, the protagonist's comparative poverty with a quarter of a million dollar fortune in The Age of the Pussyfoot comes from rising standards of living, not falling value of the dollar.)

Laying out the pattern of the future, Warming the solicitor cites Bellamy as his model. Looking Backward was written as much as a response to the creation of trusts as it was to consider the depressed economy of the nation. Isbister and Warming might well look forward to a giant Cavorite Company controlling the world, as in Bedford's business plan set forth in The First Men In the Moon, or the ultimate merger of business and government prophesied by Bellamy in Looking Backward and Equality (1897).

But Julian West was, strictly speaking, a construct created by the propagandists of the Nationalist state to explain to its units how they never had it so good. (The novel being, in effect, a novel within its own novel, the way Spinrad's The Iron Dream is a novel about a world where Adolf Hitler became an illustrator and SF writer in America, though the bulk of the book is the novel Lords of the Swastika, a book written in that world.) Graham should be so lucky.

Confusion within is paralleled by confusion without. When Graham does awake, he askes, in philosophical tropes of internal narration at first, and finally in the expected words themselves (p. 97), "Where am I?" Meanwhile, outside, a messianic labor uprising is responding to the coming of its messiah, the Owner of the World, who will awaken and right all wrongs.

In Basil Davenport's symposium The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1957, 1958), Robert Bloch showed he was far more than just the creator of one of the most striking psychological portraits of fiction. In a still incisive (and indeed painful) essay, "Imagination and Modern Social Criticism" [pp. 97-121], Bloch devastatingly described the stereotyped limitations of the future societies of science fiction. (His nine points, for example, seem to have become a plot guide for the writers of the alternate-worlds travel TV series Sliders.) Many of these limitations show up in When the Sleeper Wakes.

Graham has awoken into a collectivist state (Point 1). He soon encounters the opposition (Point 2). Science has "gone along with the gag" and facilitated the rule of the Trustees (Point 4) no Sakharovs need apply. The world is ruled by "Anglo-Saxon culture" (Point 6) where emotional reactions are still the same (Point 8). And yes, for both the Trustees and the rebels, "INDIVIDUALISM IS DEAD" (Point 9).

Not having read The Science Fiction Novel or even Psycho, Graham is at sea, and like his counterparts Julian West, J. Darlington Smith, D. B. Davis, Edward Royland, etc., is quickly taken in hand. Science has gone along with the gag, but its accomplishments have not been limited. Graham is measured for clothing automatically, he leaves the museum to himself on a moving roadway, at his destination he amuses himself watching videos. (For a nice in-joke, one of the videos Graham can choose from is "The Heart of Darkness" which Wells's friend Joseph Conrad later used as a title, though whether Graham's kinescope had anything like the giant beached whale of the movie Apocalypse Now is not mentioned.)

Other enticements, though, he rejects. When his original guide mentions casually, if inexplicitly, that he can get sexual services, Graham refuses. Evidently he is not going for the release offered in Solar Lottery (1955) or The Puppet Masters (1992 ed.) This seems unusual given Wells's own personal habits, but he had a specific idea in mind. Indeed, as Wells himself pointed out in the revised version of this book, The Sleeper Awakes (1926), he had been at great pains in the revision to eradicate any sort of suggestion of a love interest. Sexual release is for the lower classes indeed, there are Pleasure Cities for such purgations. And in a bizarre evocation of the lives of mayflies, often the members of the lower class save up for a final blow-out before ending their own lives in the facilities of the Euthanasy Company.

But Graham is caught in turmoil. While the world that rose as he slept is not openly oppressive, it is not quite well. Never mind the rebellion that his awakening has sparked off, or the barely-hidden coup that uses it as a cover for its efforts.

The legacy in "John Jones's Dollar" escheated through the fortutious demise of the last heir; Graham's Trustees are not willing to leave this matter to blind chance. And so, as Bloch predicted, the UNDERGROUND moves, to liberate its messianic last hope.

Though only alluded to, this creation of the Sleeper as a messianic figure who will someday awaken and restore justice was a quite clever form of surrogate religion. (Not that Wells had any particular liking for religion; the religious entities portrayed later on are extravagant, self-parodying, non-spiritual bodies, a world where Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker are mainstream.) Unfortunately, when the coming of the messiah became more than just a trope, Graham became a liability; unconscious, he could be easily manipulated, whereas the waking Graham might well go off and do something on his own.

Signs of the advance of technology continue, as the escaping Graham travels over the domed roofs of London, observing the Wind Vanes that generate power and the flying machines that carry goods and people. However, when he gets there he finds that some things haven't changed, and willy-nilly Graham is thrust into the headship of a revolution in his own name. Before he can issue any serious orders, however, the revolutionary meeting is dispersed, and Graham flees into the underclass districts.

About now the wanderer should be expecting to receive an infodump. "As you know, Graham, the Omni-bus derives its power from the combustion of petroleum products . . ." However, the informant here is an "unreliable witness" a befuddled old man who wheezes out a collection of rumor and half-truth about the wondrous Sleeper. By crosschecking the combined errors, of Graham and of his informer, some idea of what is going on might be derived. (Interestingly, Graham's informant believes that the Sleeper is dead and that the Trustees replaced him with a puppet shades of the false Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger In a Strange Land.) The old man's explanation of how the trustees of the Sleeper's estate took power through investments is, nevertheless, clear enough, and he provides the first glimpse of the authority of the mysterious Ostrog.

The reader is now due a look at the seats of power. And so, now that Graham has been informed, he is "rescued" and taken to meet Ostrog, who it seems is the head of the revolution. Ostrog is busy directing the siege of the Council House, where the Trustees and their subordinates are holding out against him. It seems eerily pre-reminiscent of the siege of the White House in Moscow when the Russian Parliament defied the President, but Ostrog is no Boris Yeltsin. (For example, when the real Sleeper turns up, Ostrog had indeed been in the process of preparing a surrogate.)

Stuck in the messianic role, Graham lacks the desperate humor of Brian Cohen ("Uh. . . you're all individuals." "WE'RE ALL INDIVIDUALS!!!" "I'm not."). Indeed, he is pathetically deferential to his ostensible deputy, and upon the surrender of the Trustees, delivers a properly emollient public statement to calm the masses.

At this point, in the proper utopian novel, the visitor will be given a tour of the technological wonders that reorganizing society according to an Idea have generated. The complexity of technology and the rise in standards of living have led to a concentration, which has itself been made feasible by the development of moving roads, Isbister's work. The masses in these huge human-hives are kept informed by chattering (indeed, annoyingly chattering) Babble Machines. If you thought CNN was bad . . . a prediction of the dumbing-down of news broadcasting, perhaps? In Donald Bensen's And Having Writ . . . (1978), Wells (when aliens landed in the sea off San Francisco, the Hearst papers brought in the greatest living expert on aliens) comments on the potentials of news broadcasting, only to have it pointed out to him that the broadcaster they are listening to, announcing the victory of Thomas Alva Edison (R) over William Jennings Bryan (D) in the 1908 presidential race, has been chosen not because he is particularly knowledgable about politics, but because he has a good speaking voice (John Barrymore, as a matter of fact, driven on the wagon by seeing aliens at the bar).

Not to mention communal feeding. At one point, Graham "goes slumming" and eats at a communal feedery for the upper proletariat, where a moving belt automatically passes solid food, while soup and wine are dispensed by individual taps, and the diner can wash "his elegant white metal knife and fork and spoon as occasion required" [p. 306]. The only thing that seems to have been omitted in this automation of huzzifry ("housewifery"; see the discussion of saving labor in Walden Two) is clear-glass dishes. Unfortunately for the comparison, Skinner meant this arrangement as an egalitarian measure, while Wells is using it to lay out the class structure of the Saint-Simonan state, assigning privileges on the basis of rank. (Wells was unhappy, not because there were nobles and gardeners, but because he was the gardener's son and the Hon. Peter Sidney was the nobleman's son; vice-versa would have suited him well enough.)

Flight has become commonplace; Graham learns to fly (perhaps too easily) and spends much of his time now flying. It only seems odd because of our perspective that Graham reads of the great heroes of aviation who are now little-known experimenters but remember, the Wright Brothers didn't publish, and one of the reasons they were not believed initially was that they hadn't published! As for the aircraft themselves, there are a few points of equipment and technique that now seem dubious, the equivalent of programming spaceship computers in binary code, input directly into the machine, to take an example. But Wells was up to date on the field as it was then, and this is what is reflected in the text.

As well, the leaders of the world hobnob with the awakened Sleeper. In these meetings Wells delivers his opinions about education, religion, and art in the proper society. The new corporate state will want practical men, not indisciplined litterateurs. And capillotomists though whether Graham will keep his popularity if he holds up air commerce for three hours, having his capillotomist perform his art in the Master's aëroplane, is another matter.

It's now time for our hero to meet the Disaffected Nomenklaturist, the member of the Underground who will show him the dark underside of the seeming wonders. And such a person is provided, in the person of Helen Wotton, Ostrog's niece. This is the "love affair" that Wells shamefacedly expunged in the revision, The Sleeper Awakes, but any interaction between Helen and Graham is so shallow and muted that it is more an indication of the author's mental state that he even bothered. Helen is no Elena Bolshekov (from Henry Hazlitt's Time Will Run Back; but Peter Uldanov was clever enough to see that she was setting him up).

Moreover, Helen turns out to be yet another "unreliable witness", having as incomplete and biased a perspective as Graham's other informants: the senile old man in the tunnels, Ostrog himself, and Graham's personal assistant Asano, who has been feeding him the official line. Nevertheless, she gets the idea across that the proletariat wants a share of power.

Uncle Ostrog's unreliability is deliberate, and now that Graham has been "contaminated", he figures it is time for a bracing touch of realism. At the day's audience, Ostrog brings up the problem of the revolution of rising expectations there is still unrest in Paris, stirred up by the return of the Messiah. In a spectacle worthy of Thomas Dixon, Ostrog hints threatingly at the employment of troops from the African Agricultural Police to suppress the riots, a solution that Graham opposes (in vain, as it turns out). It should be noted in this context that Russians referred to the sort of people who make up the "African Agricultural Police" and the eastern inhabitants of the Worker's and Peasant's State indifferently as chernozhopi, "black-asses". The Soviet government found it convenient to use the latter category of "black-asses" for repressing uprisings such as the ones depicted here, the dreaded Internal Affairs troops who laid waste Novocherkassk. And indeed Wells's attitude towards the African chernozhopi is disturbing to the modern way of thinking. But then the great socialist founders were blatantly racist.

Leaving the race riots behind, Graham goes slumming. Besides the communal dining hall, he passes through a gambling hall, which has in a sarcastic commentary on finance been tricked out as a stock-market. (The SF reader will be reminded of Gordon Dickson's statistical gambling game, "Booking the Vistat Run", from the anthology Five Fates.) One of the latest issues, or bets, is "Anuets on the Propraiet'rx 5 pr. G." The movie The Gauntlet, starring Clint Eastwood and his then lover Sondra Locke, has a scene in a Las Vegas betting parlor where "Mally No-Show" is one hundred to one, these being the odds given that the Locke character will not get to their destination to testify. The "Annuities on the Proprietor" at seventeen percent per annum are not as good as the odds Mally got on herself. (Then, there is The Dead Pool, about betting on the deaths of prominent people; this is actually done, albeit without (one hopes) the influencing of the results done in that movie.)

While Graham has been fooling around seeing the plight of the workers, Ostrog has been doing something about it. Bringing in the African Agricultural Police, that is. It was not as if he, having gone to all this trouble to take power, was actually going to let anyone else have it. But he can't get enough Internal Affairs troops into London right away, and perforce has to flee.

This leads to the final confrontation, where Graham, as the only pilot available (?!) has to stop the troop carriers. However, he is destroyed, unwittingly, by his "own" people, knocked out of the air by a shockwave from a troop carrier being blown up on the ground.

A disadvantage of being a paradigm-maker is that so often the followers of the paradigm take only the superficial features of the model. For example, unlike in the endless imitators of the Lost World archetype, in Sir H. Rider Haggard's She, the dumb blond was the guy; Leo Vincey is easily manipulated by Ayesha, and indeed in Ayesha: The Return of She he is kidnapped and she rescues him. And similarly, for all that this story has the Hero facing the Evil Overlord in single combat and defeating him (perhaps), becoming a martyr in the process, in fact Graham's revolt is futile. Ostrog is not an Evil Overlord whose rule can be totally overthrown by his being thrown down a tube by his former chief aide; he represents a system, a system that contains the means of its perpetuation.

Indeed, Graham realizes this: "Abruptly, it was perfectly clear to him that this revolt against Ostrog was premature, foredoomed to failure, this impulse of passionate inadequacy against inevitable things." [p. 359] The revolt is futile, its principles outdated and wrong. Morris will be conquered by Bellamy.

Stover makes a point of noting the color symbolism. Ostrog wears off-white robes, symbolizing his sovereignty, but being symbolically deferential to the Sleeper. Who, curiously enough, is then dressed in black, the color symbolizing freedom. And in a premonition of the color-coding of rank seen in Brave New World if not Time Will Run Back, below the white-clad ruling class there are red-clad executives and blue-clad toilers. Stover points out the comparisons to Saint-Simon's theory of social hierarchies in this color-coding of the classes. (His constant references to the "Indo-European color coding" scheme may come across as supererogatory.)

Names are also enlisted in this symbolism. Graham is compared to Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the Graham cracker, cited for longevity (and not for its de-sexualizing qualities) and tied in to the food-crankish tendency of such socialists. "Ostrog" is Russian for "jail"; and his agent, Lincoln, has unintended meanings for other readers, but refers to the place in England, with its own array of symbolic meanings.

As an example in the real world of Bellamy's speculations, Stover reprints an essay by John Brisben Walker, an editor of The Cosmopolitan Magazine. Instead of hot tips on sex, clothing, sex, perfume, sex, makeup, sex, work issues, and sex, behind the latest hot model wearing a cleavage-enhancing outfit, in 1901 The Cosmopolitan published things like The First Men In the Moon. And this essay by Walker, which heralds the beginning of the Universal Financial Rule, run by the houses of Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Rothschild, creating the Financial Power that will assume control of the nations' destines. It seems a bit of a comedown to realize that this grandiloquent prediction was sparked by the announcement of the formation of United States Steel much less that its modern-day descendant USX is now hardly the Universal Trust of Ostrog and Dr. Leete. (Walker's comment on "The banding together of the Houses of Rothschild, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie, representing the united metal and transportation interests" is eerily reminiscent of the creation of Metals and Energy, Inc. in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Subspace Explorers. One wonders if, a century later, MetEnge would be in the straits that USX is, a century after its creation.)

As an example of the political consequences of these thories, Stover cites certain concepts. He cites the story "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper" (1932) where Einsatzkommandos spread out in an Aktion to carry out the Final Solution to the Patriotic Problem. (In the novel The Shape of Things to Come the airborne activists used lethal gas.) Apparently, though, Wells did not approve of the active extermination of the Jews. (People with a historical Theory Toynbee and Spengler, for example tend to end up being anti-Semites, since Judaism and the Jewish people have refused to obey the historical laws they have deduced and fade away at their appointed time.)

In a discussion of Wells's work, Robert A. Heinlein advised the reader:


Try to lay hands on his The Sleeper Awakes. The gadgetry in it is ingenious and all wrong. The projected future in it is brilliant and did not happen. All of which does not sully the story; it is a great story of love and sacrifice and blood-chilling adventure set in a matrix of mind-stretching speculation about the nature of Man and his Destiny. I read it first in 1923, and at least a dozen times since . . . and still reread it whenever I get to feeling uncertain about just how one does go about the unlikely process of writing fiction for entertainment of strangers and again finding myself caught up in the sheer excitement of Wells' story.

Robert A. Heinlein, "Pandora's Box", Expanded Universe, p. 312


Trying to untangle this is an interesting speculation in itself. The Sleeper Awakes is the title of the 1910 revision, from which Wells had striven to expunge anything approaching a love story. The 1921 edition restored the original title and text. (Note that Heinlein was sixteen in 1923, so obviously his interest in science fiction started early.)

In James A. Michener's Space (1982), the NASA scientist given a selection of SF by the astronaut fan comments on the authoritarianism of the authors. What these new annotated editions reveal, much to our dismay, is how this authoritarianism was present at the creation.



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