Authors: H.G. Wells
At the same time as Campbell’s revolution, one lone writer, Robert A. Heinlein, became the dominant writer of science fiction, not just because he came up with wonderful ideas, but because he created characters who bore some resemblance to real people. This was different from either Wells or Verne, whose characterizations were minimal—for Heinlein, it was the experience of the individual, plausibly presented, that mattered most, and as a result science fiction became personal. It is hard to overstate his dominance of and influence on science fiction. It is fair to say that after Campbell’s and Heinlein’s revolutions, it became almost impossible to have a career as a science fiction writer if your science was sloppy and your characters unbelievable. As with the transition from silent films to talkies, there were those whose careers faded away because they could not make the transformation.
Oddly enough, in England itself science fiction never became quite the same kind of ghettoized genre that it did in America. Because Wells was an Englishman, and remained an important literary figure in that country even after his cache had rather faded across the Atlantic, there were British writers who followed in his tradition quite directly, without passing through (but not ignoring, either) the revolutions in American science fiction. J. G. Ballard, for instance, and Brian Aldiss, among many others, have written works that are definitely science fiction, but don’t sort themselves neatly into the channels and grooves that mark American sci-fi.
The revolutions in American science fiction have continued, though often what calls itself a revolution is merely a fad: Let’s all play with this style of writing or this version of the future, and sneer at those who don’t do it our way. The proof of this is simple: While nobody writes the pre-Campbellian, pre-Heinleinian kind of science fiction now (except for movies and comic books), all the different “revolutions” since then coexist quite easily, as readers skip from one to another. Readers can happily go from Heinlein to Le Guin to Niven to Ellison to Varley to Gibson to Willis to Robinson and find that they are still, basically, in the same literary neighborhood.
While those who try to make the jump from Asimov back to a point only a few years earlier—E. E. “Doc” Smith, for instance— find that it is a vast gulf. Many readers of the still-modern Asimov find themselves reading Smith and saying, What
But nobody says that about H. G. Wells.
Indeed, one might suggest that it took John W. Campbell’s revolution to bring the genre spawned in imitation of Wells up to the point where its writers were, in fact, writing the same kind of fiction as Wells. Had Campbell and Heinlein not transformed science fiction, it might have become a mere footnote in the history of the pulp magazines—after they were killed by the advent of television.
And if the commercial genre of science fiction had faded away with the pulps, it is likely, I think (though impossible to say for sure), that Wells, too, might have faded into a footnote; or remained, at best, like Verne, prized for his particular stories, but not the founder of anything, and not terribly important in the history of literature.
It’s rather like the old idea of the extended family—that you raise your children, and help them raise
children, so that when you’re old and too feeble to work, they’ll continue to take care of you.
Wells’s work was so powerful in its blend of believability, satire, and vision, and came at such an apt time in history, that other writers sought to emulate him, and publishers to make money from selling the imitations.
And those imitators—literary children, if you will—grew up, eventually, to be worthy successors, to the point that they are constantly finding new readers, not only for their own stories, but for the stories of their literary father, H. G. Wells.
Today there are hundreds of different doors into science fiction. But at the beginning, there was only one door, and H. G. Wells was the one who turned the key, opened it, and stepped through, showing everyone else the way. In approaching
When the Sleeper Wakes,
modern readers will immediately notice some elements of strangeness in the way it’s written. Which is not at all surprising. Literature is written within the context of a literary community. Wells wrote using the literary tools available to a writer of his time, and the text of his story was designed with the expectations of his readers in mind.
In Wells’s day, it was commonplace for the fiction writer to speak directly to the reader, as in this essay I can freely address you. Since then, however, the fashion has changed, and most books written in the past fifty years use what we call the “third person limited point of view,” in which the narrator shows the reader only what is seen, known, and felt by one character at a time.
The result is that in contemporary fiction, we expect to know intimately only one character at a time, and experience each portion of the story as if we dwelt inside the viewpoint character’s mind. This encourages us to identify with that character— to draw the events of the story into our minds as if we had experienced them along with the viewpoint character.
That intimacy was not quite available to Wells. So from the start, we experience Graham—the Sleeper—from the outside. He is a stranger who approaches a stranger, and when he falls asleep, we know almost nothing about his life or the lives of those who talk about him. All that we have to interest us is his situation: Sleep deprived, and then asleep for an extraordinarily long time.
Even when he awakes, we do not experience his sense of loss—we don’t know, when he first realizes how long he has slept,
he misses. Was there someone in particular that he loved? Was there some work that was interrupted? A novelist of our day would probably have made sure we already knew him so well that when he awoke from his sleep, we would experience his sense of loss along with him.
But that was not Wells’s purpose. It was not the character, but the idea that drew him and that must draw us. That is, we are expected to understand that the passage of centuries in sleep would shock and grieve the character, but we are not expected to share his grief.
Instead, Wells wants us to see how the world is transformed. Strange machinery whose purpose Graham cannot guess; familiar devices that have been redesigned or mechanized; and things that have not changed at all, but which are now called by different names.
It is, in fact, the strangeness that is intended to draw the reader through the story—we will want to see the future.
The odd result of this is to root the story quite firmly in its own time. After all, when Wells makes guesses about the wonders that the future will bring, he depends on the reader’s complete ignorance of that future.
But we, reading
When the Sleeper Wakes,
have clear knowledge of what actually happened during half of the two centuries that Graham slept. And of course a lot of Wells’s speculation is quite wrong—but much of it is also weirdly right.
We have not switched to a base-twelve numbering system. The idea seems absurd—why would we switch away from the convenience of counting by tens? But in fact, vast portions of our society have been turned over to two other numbering systems: the two languages of computer programming, the binary (base two) and the hexadecimal (base sixteen). Surely to Wells’s readers such a mathematical shift would have been even more absurd than the duodecimal system he proposes!
His door that rolls up when people approach it seems odd; but doors that open upon our approach, signal lights that change when we drive over a sensor in the road, and thousands of other machines that automatically anticipate our desires are a routine part of our lives. Wells was wrong in detail, but right in principle.
Still, the unavoidable effect is for us to experience his future, not as a thrilling or alarming possibility, but as a quaintly old-fashioned vision.
When the Sleeper Wakes
is thus removed from us by the old-fashioned narrative viewpoint and by the inevitable errors in his predictions. The result, for the contemporary reader, is a loss of urgency in the reading. What was once a vision is now a relic—at least, it can seem that way at first.
Wells is hardly alone in this. Take the opening of Edward Bellamy’s
first published in 1888—another book that predicted the future, and which was so familiar in Wells’s day that in chapter 2 and chapter 7 of
When the Sleeper Wakes,
Wells refers to “Bellamy” as if every reader in his day would know who Bellamy was and what he wrote.
Here are the opening lines of
“I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857. ‘What!’ you say, ‘eighteen fifty-seven? That is an odd slip. He means nineteen fiftyseven, of course.’ I beg pardon, but there is no mistake.”
To a reader in 1888, this opening would have been fascinating because the implication is that the reader of 1888 is actually living in 1988. But to us, reading this opening in the twenty-first century with both 1888 and 1988 well behind us, what strikes us most glaringly is how old-fashioned it seems, in fiction, to address the reader so directly.
Let me give you three more sentences of Bellamy, from the second paragraph: “These statements seem so absurd on their face, especially when I add that I am a young man apparently of about thirty years of age, that no person can be blamed for refusing to read another word of what promises to be a mere imposition upon his credulity. Nevertheless I earnestly assure the reader that no imposition is intended, and will undertake, if he shall follow me a few pages, to entirely convince him of this. If I may, then, provisionally assume, with the pledge of justifying the assumption, that I know better than the reader when I was born, I will go on with my narrative.”
The author’s wit is undeniable, but most contemporary readers are not accustomed to fiction with sentences festooned with so many clauses and commas, with a tone so elevated, and with so little forward movement of the story in so many words of text. In short, many a modern reader will think, upon reading these sentences, “This is going to be a pretty thick read.”
It’s easy to see how much more accessible and readable Wells is. Compared to more recent science fiction, Wells’s tone can seem cool and distant at times, sentimental or melodramatic at others; but compared to Bellamy, Wells’s writing is quick, clear, and intimate, the world he creates plausible, the movement of the story rapid indeed. This is much of the reason why it is Wells, not Bellamy, who is regarded as the father of science fiction.
Wells goes farther. He isn’t just giving us a tour of the future, he’s showing us how the very fact that this Sleeper has lived for all these years transforms society. Graham isn’t just an observer. He is the catalyst. The future into which he awakens has been changed by the fact that he slept, and is changed again by the fact that he awakens.
This is what transforms a predictive essay or a socialist polemic into a story that lives in memory. Had Wells merely preached some utopian vision, he would hardly be remembered today. Guessing correctly about the potential of air combat, as Wells does in
When the Sleeper Wakes,
would earn him a footnote in the history of aviation. Writing a compelling story that includes successful predictions has earned him a place in the history of literature, and more: His work continues to be contemporary literature, which is still read for its own sake.
ORSON SCOTT CARD has written many science fiction novels, including
. He is the only author ever to win the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel two years in a row.
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. Halfway down the precipitous path to the Pentargen beach he came suddenly upon a man sitting in an attitude of profound distress beneath a projecting mass of rock. The hands of this man hung limply over his knees, his eyes were red and staring before him, and his face was wet with tears.
He glanced round at Isbister’s footfall. Both men were disconcerted, Isbister the more so, and, to override the awkwardness of his involuntary pause, he remarked, with an air of mature conviction, that the weather was hot for the time of year.
“Very,” answered the stranger shortly, hesitated a second, and added in a colourless tone, “I can’t sleep.”
Isbister stopped abruptly. “No?” was all he said, but his bearing conveyed his helpful impulse.
“It may sound incredible,” said the stranger, turning weary eyes to Isbister’s face and emphasizing his words with a languid hand, “but I have had no sleep—no sleep at all for six nights.”
“Yes. Bad advice for the most part. Drugs. My nervous system. . . . They are all very well for the run of people. It’s hard to explain. I dare not take . . . sufficiently powerful drugs.”
“That makes it difficult,” said Isbister.
He stood helplessly in the narrow path, perplexed what to do. Clearly the man wanted to talk. An idea natural enough under the circumstances, prompted him to keep the conversation going. “I’ve never suffered from sleeplessness myself,” he said in a tone of commonplace gossip, “but in those cases I have known, people have usually found something—”
“I dare make no experiments.”
He spoke wearily. He gave a gesture of rejection, and for a space both men were silent.
“Exercise?” suggested Isbister diffidently, with a glance from his interlocutor’s face of wretchedness to the touring costume he wore.
“That is what I have tried. Unwisely perhaps. I have followed the coast, day after day—from New Quay. It has only added muscular fatigue to the mental. The cause of this unrest was overwork—trouble. There was something—”
He stopped as if from sheer fatigue. He rubbed his forehead with a lean hand. He resumed speech like one who talks to himself.
“I am a lone wolf, a solitary man, wandering through a world in which I have no part. I am wifeless—childless—who is it speaks of the childless as the dead twigs on the tree of life? I am wifeless, childless—I could find no duty to do. No desire even in my heart. One thing at last I set myself to do.
“I said, I
do this, and to do it, to overcome the inertia of this dull body, I resorted to drugs. Great God, I’ve had enough of drugs! I don’t know if
feel the heavy inconvenience of the body, its exasperating demand of time from the mind—time— life! Live! We only live in patches. We have to eat, and then comes the dull digestive complacencies—or irritations. We have to take the air or else our thoughts grow sluggish, stupid, run into gulfs and blind alleys. A thousand distractions arise from within and without, and then comes drowsiness and sleep. Men seem to live for sleep. How little of a man’s day is his own—even at the best! And then come those false friends, those Thug helpers, the alkaloids that stifle natural fatigue and kill rest— black coffee, cocaine—”
“I see,” said Isbister.
“I did my work,” said the sleepless man with a querulous intonation.
“And this is the price?”
For a little while the two remained without speaking.
“You cannot imagine the craving for rest that I feel—a hunger and thirst. For six long days, since my work was done, my mind has been a whirlpool, swift, unprogressive and incessant, a torrent of thoughts leading nowhere, spinning round swift and steady—”
He paused. “Towards the gulf.”
“You must sleep,” said Isbister decisively, and with an air of a remedy discovered. “Certainly you must sleep.”
“My mind is perfectly lucid. It was never clearer. But I know I am drawing towards the vortex. Presently—”
“You have seen things go down an eddy? Out of the light of the day, out of this sweet world of sanity—down—”
“But,” expostulated Isbister.
The man threw out a hand towards him, and his eyes were wild, and his voice suddenly high. “I shall kill myself. If in no other way—at the foot of yonder dark precipice there, where the waves are green, and the white surge lifts and falls, and that little thread of water trembles down. There at any rate is . . . sleep.”
“That’s unreasonable,” said Isbister, startled at the man’s hysterical gust of emotion. “Drugs are better than that.”
“There at any rate is sleep,” repeated the stranger, not heeding him.
Isbister looked at him and wondered transitorily if some complex Providence had indeed brought them together that afternoon. “It’s not a cert, you know,” he remarked. “There’s a cliff like that at Lulworth Cove—as high, anyhow—and a little girl fell from top to bottom. And lives to-day—sound and well.”
“But those rocks there?”
“One might lie on them rather dismally through a cold night, broken bones grating as one shivered, chill water splashing over you. Eh?”
Their eyes met. “Sorry to upset your ideals,” said Isbister with a sense of devil-may-careish brilliance. “But a suicide over that cliff (or any cliff for the matter of that), really, as an artist—” He laughed. “It’s so damned amateurish.”
“But the other thing,” said the sleepless man irritably, “the other thing. No man can keep sane if night after night—”
“Have you been walking along this coast alone?”
“Silly sort of thing to do. If you’ll excuse my saying so. Alone! As you say; body fag is no cure for brain fag. Who told you to? No wonder; walking! And the sun on your head, heat, fag, solitude, all the day long, and then, I suppose, you go to bed and try very hard—eh?”
Isbister stopped short and looked at the sufferer doubtfully.
“Look at these rocks!” cried the seated man with a sudden force of gesture. “Look at that sea that has shone and quivered there for ever! See the white spume rush into darkness under that great cliff. And this blue vault, with the blinding sun pouring from the dome of it. It is your world. You accept it, you rejoice in it. It warms and supports and delights you. And for me—”
He turned his head and showed a ghastly face, bloodshot pallid eyes and bloodless lips. He spoke almost in a whisper. “It is the garment of my misery. The whole world . . . is the garment of my misery.”
Isbister looked at all the wild beauty of the sunlit cliffs about them and back to that face of despair. For a moment he was silent.
He started, and made a gesture of impatient rejection. “You get a night’s sleep,” he said, “and you won’t see much misery out here. Take my word for it.”
He was quite sure now that this was a providential encounter. Only half an hour ago he had been feeling horribly bored. Here was employment the bare thought of which was righteous self-applause. He took possession forthwith. It seemed to him that the first need of this exhausted being was companionship. He flung himself down on the steeply sloping turf beside the motionless seated figure, and deployed forthwith into a skirmishing line of gossip.
His hearer seemed to have lapsed into apathy; he stared dismally seaward, and spoke only in answer to Isbister’s direct questions—and not to all of those. But he made no sign of objection to this benevolent intrusion upon his despair.
In a helpless way he seemed even grateful, and when presently Isbister, feeling that his unsupported talk was losing vigour, suggested that they should reascend the steep and return towards Boscastle, alleging the view into Blackapit, he submitted quietly. Halfway up he began talking to himself, and abruptly turned a ghastly face on his helper. “What can be happening?” he asked with a gaunt illustrative hand. “What can be happening? Spin, spin, spin, spin. It goes round and round, round and round for evermore.”
He stood with his hand circling.
“It’s all right, old chap,” said Isbister with the air of an old friend. “Don’t worry yourself. Trust to me.”
The man dropped his hand and turned again. They went over the brow in single file and to the headland beyond Penally, with the sleepless man gesticulating ever and again, and speaking fragmentary things concerning his whirling brain. At the headland they stood for a space by the seat that looks into the dark mysteries of Blackapit, and then he sat down. Isbister had resumed his talk whenever the path had widened sufficiently for them to walk abreast. He was enlarging upon the complex difficulty of making Boscastle Harbour in bad weather, when suddenly and quite irrelevantly his companion interrupted him again.
“My head is not like what it was,” he said, gesticulating for want of expressive phrases. “It’s not like what it was. There is a sort of oppression, a weight. No—not drowsiness, would God it were! It is like a shadow, a deep shadow falling suddenly and swiftly across something busy. Spin, spin into the darkness. The tumult of thought, the confusion, the eddy and eddy. I can’t express it. I can hardly keep my mind on it—steadily enough to tell you.”
He stopped feebly.
“Don’t trouble, old chap,” said Isbister. “I think I can understand. At any rate, it don’t matter very much just at present about telling me, you know.”
The sleepless man thrust his knuckles into his eyes and rubbed them. Isbister talked for awhile while this rubbing continued, and then he had a fresh idea. “Come down to my room,” he said, “and try a pipe. I can show you some sketches of this Blackapit. If you’d care?”
The other rose obediently and followed him down the steep.
Several times Isbister heard him stumble as they came down, and his movements were slow and hesitating. “Come in with me,” said Isbister, “and try some cigarettes and the blessed gift of alcohol. If you take alcohol?”
The stranger hesitated at the garden gate. He seemed no longer clearly aware of his actions. “I don’t drink,” he said slowly, coming up the garden path, and after a moment’s interval repeated absently, “No—I don’t drink. It goes round. Spin, it goes—spin—”
He stumbled at the doorstep and entered the room with the bearing of one who sees nothing.
Then he sat down abruptly and heavily in the easy chair, seemed almost to fall into it. He leant forward with his brows on his hands and became motionless.
Presently he made a faint sound in his throat. Isbister moved about the room with the nervousness of an inexperienced host, making little remarks that scarcely required answering. He crossed the room to his portfolio, placed it on the table and noticed the mantel clock.
“I don’t know if you’d care to have supper with me,” he said with an unlighted cigarette in his hand—his mind troubled with a design of the furtive administration of chloral. “Only cold mutton, you know, but passing sweet. Welsh. And a tart, I believe.” He repeated this after momentary silence.
The seated man made no answer. Isbister stopped, match in hand, regarding him.
The stillness lengthened. The match went out, the cigarette was put down unlit. The man was certainly very still. Isbister took up the portfolio, opened it, put it down, hesitated, seemed about to speak. “Perhaps,” he whispered doubtfully. Presently he glanced at the door and back to the figure. Then he stole on tip-toe out of the room, glancing at his companion after each elaborate pace.
He closed the door noiselessly. The house door was standing open, and he went out beyond the porch, and stood where the monkshood rose at the corner of the garden bed. From this point he could see the stranger through the open window, still and dim, sitting head on hand. He had not moved.
A number of children going along the road stopped and regarded the artist curiously. A boatman exchanged civilities with him. He felt that possibly his circumspect attitude and position seemed peculiar and unaccountable. Smoking, perhaps, might seem more natural. He drew pipe and pouch from his pocket, filled the pipe slowly.
“I wonder, . . .” he said, with a scarcely perceptible loss of complacency. “At any rate one must give him a chance.” He struck a match in the virile way, and proceeded to light his pipe.
Presently he heard his landlady behind him, coming with his lamp lit from the kitchen. He turned, gesticulating with his pipe, and stopped her at the door of his sitting-room. He had some difficulty in explaining the situation in whispers, for she did not know he had a visitor. She retreated again with the lamp, still a little mystified to judge from her manner, and he resumed his hovering at the corner of the porch, flushed and less at his ease.
Long after he had smoked out his pipe, and when the bats were abroad, his curiosity dominated his complex hesitations, and he stole back into his darkling sitting-room. He paused in the doorway. The stranger was still in the same attitude, dark against the window. Save for the singing of some sailors aboard one of the little slate-carrying ships in the harbour, the evening was very still. Outside, the spikes of monkshood and delphinium stood erect and motionless against the shadow of the hillside. Something flashed into Isbister’s mind; he started, and leaning over the table, listened. An unpleasant suspicion grew stronger; became conviction. Astonishment seized him and became— dread!
No sound of breathing came from the seated figure!
He crept slowly and noiselessly round the table, pausing twice to listen. At last he could lay his hand on the back of the armchair. He bent down until the two heads were ear to ear.
Then he bent still lower to look up at his visitor’s face. He started violently and uttered an exclamation. The eyes were void spaces of white.
He looked again and saw that they were open and with the pupils rolled under the lids. He was suddenly afraid. Overcome by the strangeness of the man’s condition, he took him by the shoulder and shook him. “Are you asleep?” he said, with his voice jumping into alto, and again, “Are you asleep?”
A conviction took possession of his mind that this man was dead. He suddenly became active and noisy, strode across the room, blundering against the table as he did so, and rang the bell.