Book Review: The Sleeper Awakes – H.G. Wells

Book:  The Sleeper Awakes

Author: H.G. Wells

Year Published: Original publication 1899 (as When the Sleeper Wakes); Rewritten in 1910 (as The Sleeper Awakes)

Rating: ☻☻☻☻☺ (4 of 5)

Another review I’ve pulled from the archives of my former blog. This was another random pick from my Book Queue, and I had been waiting patiently for it to come up for some time. It was worth the wait.

Wells is one of the fathers of science fiction, and as such he is one of my heroes. I was fortunate enough to have read both 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth just prior to reading this novel, so I’ve been given the opportunity now to compare two founders of the genre side to side. The way I see Jules Verne is as a science teacher; H.G. Wells is more like a literature teacher. Verne’s books open up world’s of amazing scientific discovery and he guides us along like the leader of an expedition to strange new worlds, whereas Wells is connecting us as emotional creatures to the possibilities of the future through a romantic drama set in a future world. For Wells, there is no greater commentary on the past and the present than the possible future.

The Sleeper Awakes is set in a dystopian future. In the beginning of the novel, the main character is introduced as suffering from extreme insomnia and eventually lapses into a state of endless sleep, a sort of coma. He is preserved by certain people and over the course of around 200 years, becomes the richest living man in the world due to the interest he accrues in a money account. In this future, he is regarded as the “master” of the world, and somewhat of a sleeping god. Society continues on as he slumbers and the powers that govern the future society act as if on his behalf. Truthfully, however, no one expects The Sleeper, as they call him, to wake up.

For reasons unknown, the Sleeper does wake up and immediately becomes a messiah to some, an enemy of the state to others. He finds himself both with great influence and at the same time a puppet’s power. The Sleeper struggles to decide which half of a quickly dividing society to throw his support behind, the governing class and their Council, or the oppressed workers living in poverty in the lower parts of the city. He soon finds that for all the progress that his species has made during his long slumber, nothing has really changed about the nature of man. He sees the potential the human race had and how it was squandered, but finds himself in a unique position to change the course of the future of man by using his influence as “master” to aid one side over the other.

Wells was a socialist, and the political commentary is heavily in favor of plight of the collective soul of mankind. You can tell that his purpose in the story is to force us to consider how we are more likely to retain our bad traits through to the future than our good ones – that just because technology will progress indefinitely, it doesn’t mean man won’t lag behind due to his greed and selfishness. Bottom line: We must evolve as a species at the same pace we progress technologically or we will only provide those who wish to control us with more advanced ways to do so – that means revolution, whether peaceful or violent, against the old ways in favor of the new. For Wells, it was socialism over capitalism.

Some of these early novels of Wells are more romances than hard science fiction, but what makes them so significant is that Wells isn’t just showing you the future on a screen, or from the safety of a tour bus – he puts you in the future with your baggage, your emotions and your fears, and connects you to it by your soul instead of just by your brain. That is the marked difference between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Real people, not just the scientific-minded or book smart reader, could relate to his stories and could see themselves in those situations, because Wells made his characters flawed with emotions backwards from the progress of technology.

At the same time, Wells has vision. He wrote this in 1899 and then in 1910 and was already imagining the prominence of the aeroplane, communication networks, and television. I think he proves that if you think hard enough about where we’ve been, and where we are now, you can predict where we are going. He asserts that its imperative that we don’t abandon actively transitioning to that future, lest we allow outdated ideas to poison and destroy it by focusing too much on the past and present. Wells was a futurist, his visions of the future are now, in part, our reality. And so, to me, that proves that we as a species must not only accept that indefinite forward progress will happen, but we must make it happen now by considering its ramifications on all aspects of life and actively participating in pushing it towards the unknown horizons.

Wells suggested his epitaph read “I told you so. You damned fools.” I know exactly how he feels.

If you’re a science fiction fan, this is a must read – but I think it can speak to any reader, regardless of their favorite genres.

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