The Coming Race
By Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Published by Librivox
Read by Maire Rhode
Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, “Wow! I could write better than this!” If not, then you absolutely have to read The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton! It will cure you of that lack of experience. Trust me!
In Jasper Fforde’s series involving literature detective, Thursday Next, Thursday is sentenced to read the ten most boring books ever written. This book almost had to be on her reading list. It is so bad… A vegan, caught in a bear trap and forced to listen to this book, would gnaw his own ankle off to get free. Yes, this may just be the worst book ever written!
Now let us not discount the literary accomplishments and contributions of Lord Bulwer-Lyton. It was he who coined the phrases “Pursuit of the almighty dollar,” “The great unwashed,” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Also, nearly every reader alive has heard the first line of his Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night,” a line so infamous it inspired an annual contest of First Liners, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where WWW stands for Wretched Writers Welcome!
I had never read anything by Bulwer-Lytton before this, but had, of course, heard of him and when I came across mention of an early (or possibly proto) science fiction novel by him, I thought it might be interesting. So to be quite fair, I have only myself to blame.
Anyway, it starts out with an American from somewhere left blank who was out walking somewhere left blank (because, Heavens forbid the author to actually have to know something about the United States?) and later in the book we are left to conclude that if we knew where the character had been we might go where he did and either be killed ourselves or precipitate the utter destruction of all Mankind. He finds himself in a subterranean land in what is, essentially a hollow Earth of the same sort seen in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. While there, he meets and befriends some members of an angelic-appearing people called the Vril-ya. He is mostly tolerated in the same way a pet might be, although toward the end two of the women fall in love with him. Since one of them is the daughter of the leader of the Vril-ya, the matter is easily resolved; her father orders his death, but the other woman, who has been acting as his guide, flies (I didn’t mention they fly around on artificial wings?) him back to the surface and out of love abandons him there. There after, he writes his memoirs and regrets not having accepted her offer to stay with him, so… a happy ending for all.
The book is tedious and for roughly ninety-five percent of it nothing ever really happens. He spends one particularly long and boring chapter giving us a lexicon of Vril-ya nouns and their declension for no particularly good reason as the vast majority of those words never appear again in the book and of the ones that do, most get used so much later that only a reader with perfect memory could possibly remember what they are supposed to mean. Indeed, in most cases he uses those words where the English equivalent would work just as well without being so confusing.
I should mention that the book is by no means science fiction even by the most generous definition. There is nothing of science involved in any of what the author describes, even by the lights of the Nineteenth Century. It is a fantasy; not a very good one, but fantasy, nonetheless.
However, it is possible I represent a minority opinion. The book was fairly popular in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and, strangely, many people thought it was a true account. These people were mostly mystics who truly believed the Earth was hollow and is thought to have inspired Nazi mysticism. Many theosophists and occultists did use this book to justify their own search for “Vril,” which Bulwer-Lytton described as a sort of fluid energy that could create, destroy, repair and likely be used to fix elections as well.
I found it hard to believe he was keeping a straight face while writing this tripe and indeed some writers refer to this work as a satire and I would agree there are many aspects that could be satirical in nature (such as the reversed sexual dimorphism between Vril-ya males and females) but to be a real satire I would expect it to be a bit over the top. This work is not quite ridiculous enough to be a satire, although I will grant it is possible Bulwer-Lytton may have thought of it as such.
I did find myself wondering if this book also inspired certain aspects of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which, for all my recent grumbles, is a masterpiece of literature compared to The Coming Race. Most specifically, among the Vril-ya, the children do all the work. They run the businesses, for example, and when our hero is condemned to death it is the young son of the Vril-ya leader who is given the job of killing him. The young, especially the boys, are greatly talented with all forms of destruction, in fact and their Vril staffs are normally configured to not accentuate the destructive properties of Vril. I could not help but think of the military of Ender’s Earth using the very young to run their wars for them.
In any case, if you have already found a published book you could do better than, I highly recommend The Coming Race as one to avoid.
To my good friend Susie: do not place this one on Mount Toberead. It might collapse.
Maire Rhode has read a large number of books for Librivox, so I am not sure if her own narrative talents are lacking or if this book was so bad that even a good reader could not save it. I suspect the latter. She certainly did not sound as though she was enjoying the book any more than I did and if you do not like what you are reading it is very hard, possibly impossible, to actually fake the enthusiasm for the entire length of this story. Actually, her reading improved remarkably in the last few chapters. No doubt she could see there was an end in sight.
To sum it up, this was a mediocre reading of a truly miserable book. One to avoid.