The Sleeper Awakes, by H. G. Wells

I recently discovered that you could get H. G. Wells novels for free on iBooks. So I grabbed one and read it.

Wow. You learn some things from reading.

1) Wells was a racist, at least when he was writing this book. Part of me wants to pretend it isn’t there. But this book has a plot point that is undeniably racist. (Black men in airships bent on violence and unspeakable horrors.) And Wells engages in some pretty obviously racist commentary on said plot point. (The reason these men are being called in is that they are constitutionally incapable of civilization!)

2) Not surprisingly, Wells imagined some things that have actually come about. He imagined something very much like a television set (and even a form of the porno film). He imagined air traffic, and the death of  country life. Large resorts (“pleasure cities”), women’s liberation, the growth of massive cities — enclosed entirely. Who knows, by 2099, we might have some of those.

3) Other things are completely old-fashioned. Nothing in the novel is wireless. Without wireless, the world he imagined is almost completely unrecognizable, feeling quaintly passé. It tempts me to say that wireless devices are among the most defining features of our era. Technology more generally in the novel is old-fashioned. Lots of gears and wires and such that you don’t much see today.

4) Wells supposed that people I’d never heard of would still be famous, and terms nobody ever uses would still be in usage in 2099. That’s forgivable, of course. It just goes to show that he was talking to his own times, not ours.

I could go on, but it isn’t worth it. The novel wasn’t that great, in my opinion, even before I got to the racist parts. Too much dithering, not enough doing. The world is convulsing around him, and the Sleeper is kept in the dark, then wanders around, then goes back under cover, abdicates most of his power, and so on. The novel is a vehicle for showing one vision of the future. But since that future felt like it was beginning to grow mold, I didn’t get much from it.

Its most redeeming trait was probably its realism about how hard it is to change the world; how likely it is that the rich will continue getting richer and the working classes more and more turned into cattle; and how ineffective idealists are in the face of The Way The World Works. But I’d rather cling to my idealism. Fairly or unfairly, Wells’s realism didn’t endear the novel to me, either.

So, sorry, Mr. Wells. This one just didn’t work for me. But I’m glad to see you didn’t much like it yourself — even if for not quite the best reasons.

Anybody else read it? Am I being too hard on the old master?


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