Review: The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells

I’m cheating a little with this week’s review, as I’ve already semi-discussed my feelings over on the I Could Never Do That book club forum – I just still feel the need to have a little rant for discussion.

The Sleeper Awakes is a 1910 lesser known (well, I had no idea it existed) novel by H.G. Wells. It’s not hard to tell, on reading, why it’s not held up as an example of the authors talent.

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. WellsGraham, an 1890s radical pamphleteer who is eagerly awaiting the twentieth century and all the advances it will bring, is stricken with insomnia. Finally resorting to medication, he instantly falls into a deep sleep that lasts two hundred years. Upon waking in the twenty-second century to a strange and nightmarish place, he slowly discovers he is master of the world, revered by an adoring populace who consider him their leader. Terrified, he escapes from his chamber seeking solace only to realize that not everyone adores him, some even wish to harm him. Summary from GoodReads.

There is something transient about experiencing the difference of Graham’s new world in comparison to the Victorian one he fell asleep in, as  you quickly realise the changes aren’t significant transformations at all. The decor, architecture and general appearance of the Wells’ dystopian imaginings are the most dwelt upon changes; pages are wasted on the description of this new land and little time is devoted to socio-cultural evolution. There is an element of social criticism of Wells’ time, however, this is completely overridden by his racist and sexist denotations.

‘”White men must be mastered by white men. besides-” 
“The negroes are only an instrument.” 
“But that is not the question. I am the Master. I mean to be the Master. And I tell you these negroes shall not come.”‘ – Graham and Ostrog p. 141

The predominant fear through the latter half of the novel – once we discover Graham’s new world is not as stable as it seems – is the black police. The threat of the ‘big scary black man’ is constantly used against Graham and the poor (economically) rebels of London. Ostrog, the first rebel leader of London threatens the use of the black police, who will tear into any city that will not conform to his new rule – destroying all in their wake. This was about the point in the novel where I wanted to go back in time and give Wells a slap and an education – his depictions are both ignorant and disgusting.

‘”I come out of the past to you,” he said, “with the memory of an age that hoped. My age was an age of dreams-if beginnings, an age of nobel hopes; throughout the world we made an end of slavery; throughout the world we had spread the desire and anticipation that wars might cease, that all men and women might live nobly, in freedom and peace…. So we hoped in the days that are past. And what of those hopes? How is it with man after two hundred years?”‘ – Graham p. 149

The white poor, degenerates of society, are the slaves of The Sleeper Awakes – needing to be freed by Graham’s eventual rule. Graham continually rants about the rights of the poor, and it becomes clear that as long as you are a straight, white male you are deserving of assistance.

‘”There’s a thousand forms of work for women now. But you had the beginning of the independent working-woman in your days. Most women are independent now. Most of these are married more or less- there are a number of methods of contract- and that gives them more money, and enables them to enjoy themselves.”‘ – Asano p. 130

In Wells’ future women are freed from the home, independant of Victorian restrictions. Sounds good right? Probably the only good part of this futuristic society, I know I’m a big fan of female independence. Oh wait no, Graham is horrified by this.

‘”Of course, in our time, a woman was supposed not only to bear children, but to cherish them, to devote herself to them, to educate them-all the essentials of moral and mental education a child owed it’s mother. Or went without. Quite a number, I admit, went without. […] Only there was an ideal- that figure of a grave, patient woman, silently and serenely mistress of a home, mother and maker of men- to love her was a sort of worship.”‘ – Graham p.130

Because an independent woman is clearly a problematic woman, and cause of social degradation.

In terms of readability, The Sleeper Awakes pulls through by its third section – political aspirations are finally discussed and Graham begins to understand his role in this new world. If you wish to gain some insight into the arrogance of the British Empire, the ridiculous assumption that it would forever prevail (Graham’s world is ruled under him in London, Britain rules the world) it is illuminating reading. If not, I warn you it’s dull.

If you fancy taking part in the I Could Never Do That book club this month we are reading Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.

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