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The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells
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The Sleeper Awakes (1899)

by H. G. Wells

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Kind of an odd dystopian novel about a man in 1890s England who falls asleep and wakes up 200 years later to find himself the richest and most powerful man on Earth. Shades of Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury with many many Wellsian ideas about social change and society. Highly cinematic - the writing is quite beautiful - and the descriptions of airplanes and warfare - which predate any such use - are truly awesome. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
Is there any early sf subgenre where H. G. Wells doesn't wake up one day and think, "Well, I could do that better?" What The War of the Worlds did for the invasion narrative and The War in the Air for the revolution, The Sleeper Awakes does for the utopian sleeper story-- those peculiar stories where a fellow from the fin de siècle falls asleep and wakes up in far future, like Looking Backward or News from Nowhere (or, much less famously, Looking Within). Wells has actually thought about this would actually be like: there's no guided tour that shows the sleeper what the new world is like in precise detail, because people lie to him, people have their own agendas or biases, because people just take aspects of their own society for granted and don't even think to explain them. Also he even explains how the sleeper could sleep so long without, you know, just dying, and why people would want to keep him alive! It's this thinking-through of generic assumptions that makes Wells the first true science fiction writer, not to mention one of the best.

In that hallmark of good sf, much of what Graham (our sleeper) learns isn't through exposition, but through unfamiliar details. Years before Heinlein's door dilated, Graham runs into a collapsible wall! He watches television and deduces aspects of the future from it. And instead of being a utopia he encounters, it's a dystopia-- but when revolution comes, it's not a tidy one that replaces the ugly society with the beautiful. Wells is too good for that, too.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Jan 28, 2014 |
This was Wells's revised version of When the Sleeper Wakes, which was serialized and published in book form in 1899; the version I read was the 2005 Penguin Classics edition, with a Foreword by Patrick Parrinder and useful notes by my old friend Andy Sawyer of the Foundation.

On a walking holiday in northern Cornwall, a man called Isbister comes across another, Graham, in great distress: Graham has been suffering insomnia for days. Isbister takes him back home, but before he can summon medical attention Graham falls asleep at last, and indeed into a coma -- and what a coma! It lasts for two centuries. When Graham finally wakes it is into an almost unrecognizable world. In due course he finds that he essentially owns this world: at the time he fell asleep he had money of his own, and both his richer solicitor cousin and Isbister had left their fortunes to his somnolent form; compound interest has done the rest. In the modern age, a Council has for some time been ruling the world tyrannously, supposedly on his behalf, while his motionless form has been on display to a public who've come to regard him as a sort of messiah-in-waiting. It is of course a profound disaster to the Council that he has woken, and they try to keep the fact a secret from the people, while preparing to dispose of this inconvenient waker. But Graham is rescued and a successful revolution mounted by the demagogue Ostrog, a supposed Man of the People who's soon revealed as having intentions just as despotic as those of the ousted Council. (Ostrog's explanation of his behaviour includes a passage [p167:] that could have come straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm.) As Graham is taken on carefully guide tours of a domed and massively bloated London, and as he becomes aware of Ostrog's perfidy, his natural 19th-century radicalism begins to stir itself; and finally, having learned how to pilot one of these newfangled flying-machine things as a hobby, he takes to the air in an attempt to destroy  the demagogue as a second rebellion, this time genuinely of the people, seems on the brink of success . . .

According to the editorial material, in the years leading up to 1910 Wells had intended to write a sort of self-parody, but instead came out with this revision of his earlier novel. Signs of the self-parodic intention persist, as when Isbister and Graham's cousin discuss the sleeping man (after Isbister has [p21:] described the comatose Graham as "like a seat vacant and marked 'engaged'" -- beautiful!):

"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. Some of them are already exploded, some of them are established facts. But for the most part to read such a thesis is to realize how full the world is of unanticipated things." (p24)

I would say this must certainly be a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait by the same H.G. Wells who couldn't resist adding a snooty little footnote to the opening of Chapter 24, "While the Aeroplanes Were Coming":

These chapters were written fifteen years before there was any fighting in the air, and eleven before there was an aeroplane in the air.

Obviously Graham has difficulty acclimatizing himself to this future world. There's a sense throughout that, even as he flees terrified through a roiling nighttime mob or takes to the skies in a monoplane, he's not really a part of the activities despite the fact that he's in the midst of them. It's as if he hasn't quite left the world of sleep and is experiencing all this in the manner of a dream. To be honest, I found this a problem with the book: it's very difficult to become involved in the action when the protagonist seems incapable of doing likewise. Even when the door opens for Graham to the possibility of romance, with the attractive revolutionary Helen Wotton, Graham closes it again: his duty must come first.

Perhaps he's right to heed duty's call, for this is a ruthless and, for the powerful, self-indulgent age he's found himself in, with a lot of wrongs to be righted. The social structure has become enormously stratified, with the powerful elite having almost everything they could desire, the middle classes having just enough to keep them from riot, and a vast underclass who have nothing to live for and who are kept viciously downtrodden by social structures and no fewer than fourteen different categories of police. As example of the exploitation of these folk, Graham visits a factory (pp194-5) and finds many of the workers suffer a horribly disfiguring disease (the descriptions like that of phossy jaw) because of a fashionable purple dye they're handling. When he brings this to the attention of his companion, he gets a chilling response:

"But, Sire, we simply could not stand that stuff without the purple," said Asano. "In your days people could stand such crudities, they were nearer the barbaric by two hundred years."

Some of Wells's predictions are successful: in particular, he anticipates the development of windmills as a significant power source. His footnoted prediction of aircraft dogfighting is not nearly the success one might think, in that, far from trying to shoot each other down, the pilots use collision as a tool, the trick being to seriously disable your opponent while doing your own plane only tolerable damage. There's an interesting example of a prediction being since realized . . . but only in science fiction. Wells envisaged roadways whose surfaces moved to convey people from place to place; the central strips are slow-moving, but those strips further out are progressively more rapid, so that you can climb aboard the system near the centre and step easily from one strip to the next until you reach the fastest-moving strip of all, which is the one where you stay for the bulk of your journey. Around now, you'll doubtless be leaping from your seat shouting about Robert Heinlein's 1940 story "The Roads Must Roll" . . . Another prediction in this only-in-sf category is that the world will be using the duodecimal system. But then we find this:

But now he saw what had indeed been manifest from the first, that London, regarded as a living place, was no longer an aggregation of houses but a prodigious hotel, an hotel with a thousand classes of accommodation, thousands of dining halls, chapels, theatres, markets and places of assembly, a synthesis of enterprises [. . .:] People [of the middle classes:] had their sleeping rooms, with, it might be, antechambers [. . .:] and for the rest they lived much as many people had lived in the new-made giant hotels of the Victorian days, eating, reading, thinking, playing, conversing, all in places of public resort [. . .:] (p177)

I know plenty of people whose urban lifestyles are not so very dissimilar from Wells's description.

The extended travelogue-style sections, where we're supposed to boggle at the way world looks now, are pretty dull stuff -- and I suspect were so even when the book was first published. There's some appalling sexism in the book, but I suppose one can write that off as being a product of Wells's era. What I cannot excuse similarly is the racism. By the time Wells was writing, there were plenty of his compatriots who'd achieved sufficient enlightenment to realize that ghastly racial stereotypes like the ones in this novel -- the "subject races" (p172) are "fine loyal brutes" (p167) -- were purest bunkum and utterly loathsome. It gets worse. The final straw -- a major plot point -- that makes Graham resort to launching an uprising against Ostrog is that the latter plans to import "Negro police" to quell the rioting populace; not only are the "Negroes" prone to committing the kind of atrocities no white man would countenance, but "White men must be mastered by white men" (p202), and so forth. It's all quite unforgivable, and my estimation of Wells has plummeted. ( )
1 vote JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
I can see plenty of reasons why people and critics have not liked Wells' story of a London 200 years in the future as much as some of his earlier science fiction because it can be read as:
An anti-capitalist rant
Overtly racist in its portrayal of a negro police force
A novel that literally finishes in mid-air
Wells' vision of the future falls fairly wide of the mark
Structural problems with passages of world building that seem levered into an adventure story
Very little character development.

Wells himself was not happy with the original novel published in 1899 as When the sleeper Awakes, because in 1910 he published a revised version calling it more simply [The Sleeper Awakes]. His reasons for the revisions were that the original novel was written in too much haste and at the same time as [Love and Mr Lewisham] with the latter novel taking precedence. Looking back he found some of the writing clumsy and he also wanted to remove any hint of a love affair between Graham (the sleeper) and Helen Wotton. There was no drastic re-write and he did little more than tidy up his novel and so must have been reasonably happy with it.

Having read the revised version I would brush aside most of these criticisms because I think Wells has written an astonishing science fiction novel; packed with ideas that have been mined by many writers following him, when they created their dystopian worlds: [1984] and [Brave New World] foremost among them. The story perhaps has a too simple premise; A man(Graham) wracked by insomnia eventually falls asleep, not waking up until 200 years in the future. While he has been sleeping his investments have accrued and been managed by friends to such an extent that he is in effect owner of half the world, by the time he wakes up in 2002. He awakes to a very different world, one where rampant capitalism has resulted in a society divided by class. A few ultra rich people control the cities, forcing the working population to labour under awful conditions in order to qualify for food rations. A Political schemer Ostrog has been using the legend of (the Sleeper) as a way of garnering support from the working population in order to seize power from an elite Council, however when the sleeper awakes against all expectations and proves to have his own ideas about how the city should be run then conflict with Ostrog is inevitable.

It is Wells description of a city of the future that is so fascinating, with it's moving walkways, the giant wind machines responsible for providing power, it's omnipresent advertising with sound bites designed to hook people into buying the products, Its denuding of the countryside forcing people to live in the glass cities, the complete destruction of the family unit with dormitories for raising children, the use of psychology and hypnotism that largely replaces medicine, the babble machines that constantly give the people the latest news in sound bites and finally the condition of the lower working classes forced to wear a uniform and literally being fed according to how hard they can work. It is the city of London that Wells is describing and it is nothing like the London of 2002, but Wells' vision of the future could merely be out in timing rather than fact. It is Wells' skill in creating this future world in which he sets his story that is so impressive and the story has its moments of excitement; Graham's escape over the glass rooftops of London with the ever present wind vane machines looming in the background. The fight between Graham and Ostrog in the vast hall of the Council and finally Grahams derring do in the monoplane above London. Yes there are times when the story is suspended while Wells describes his new world, but that is the case with many science fiction novels and Wells is more skilled than most.

Finally perhaps it is Wells' lack of humour in this novel that makes less than a completely satisfying read. Graham shows plenty of courage, political nous and a desire to put things right as he sees it. He says to Ostrog;

"I came from a democratic age and I find an aristocratic tyranny" "Well" says Ostrog "but you are the Chief Tyrant"

I feel that Ostrog's witty reply would have been lost on Graham, perhaps Wells should have given him, and expanded that love interest with Helen Wotton after all, just to show him in a more human light, but obviously this was not Wells' intention.

Remembering that this book was written in 1899 and that Victorian views on race and sex were different to some of our own then I think this is a disturbing and thought provoking view of a future that still might be ahead of us. Even if that is not the case Wells' world building is impressive and with a story line that has moments of high drama and imagination I would not hesitate to recommend this to readers interested in early science fiction. It may not have quite the literary merit of 1984 or Brave New World, but can be read as an interesting precursor and H G Wells knew how to write a good novel with wide appeal. I would rate this as 3.5 stars ( )
2 vote baswood | Aug 8, 2013 |
After reading [b:The Forever War|21611|The Forever War|Joe Haldeman|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1167322714s/21611.jpg|423]* with it's time travel by effect of relativity I've moved on to time machine-free time travel by means of a really long sleep...

It's hard to judge this novel on its own merits, rather than making comparisons with later depictions of dystopias such as the equally highly stratified society of [b:Brave New World|5129|Brave New World|Aldous Huxley|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327865608s/5129.jpg|3204877], published over a quarter of a century later. In some ways it's very much of its time: more so in the racism and sexism which may be far more jarring to a modern reader than Victorian predictions of future technology. Indeed the predictions of technology seem far more accurate than some of the future attitudes. By the late 2090s it appears we will have moving walkways, televisions and aeroplanes, and the now merely 'half savage' Negro will unquestioningly follow the orders of his white masters.

In Wells' preface to the 1921 edition, he admits that by that time he is convinced that this future society of a more-or-less literally stratified society crammed into few massive cities with the countryside empty is rather unlikely. He no longer believes that evil capitalists will take over the world, however the "money is power" idea would seem to be more relevant now in a time when companies lobby politicians and some companies have more money than the economies of some entire countries. The future is a strange place in which to live...


* in the [b:Peace & War|879803|Peace & War (The Forever War Omnibus, #1-3)|Joe Haldeman|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1179146974s/879803.jpg|865097] Omnibus by [a:Joe Haldeman|12476|Joe Haldeman|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1224736362p2/12476.jpg] ( )
  stevejwales | Apr 26, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
H. G. Wellsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Parrinder, PatrickEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sawyer, AndyNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One afternoon, at low water, Mr. Isbister, a young artist lodging at Boscastle, walked from that place to the picturesque cove of Pentargen, desiring to examine the caves there.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141441062, Paperback)

In The Sleeper Awakes, an insomniac falls into a sleep-like trance for more than two hundred years, and awakes in a society in which the oppressed masses cling desperately to one dream—that the sleeper will awake and lead them all to freedom.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:01 -0400)

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A troubled insomniac in 1890s England falls suddenly into a sleep-like trance, from which he does not awake for over two hundred years. During his centuries of slumber, however, investments are made that make him the richest and most powerful man on Earth. But when he comes out of his trance he is horrified to discover that the money accumulated in his name is being used to maintain a hierarchal society in which most are poor, and more than a third of all people are enslaved. Oppressed and uneducated, the masses cling desperately to one dream that the sleeper will awake, and lead them all to freedom.… (more)

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Editions: 0786406666, 0786449357

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