Graham became aware that his eyes were open and regarding some unfamiliar thing…how long had he slept? What was that sound of pattering feet? And that rise and fall, like the murmur of breakers on pebbles? He put out a languid hand to reach his watch from the chair whereon it was his habit to place it, and touchesd some smooth hard surface like glass. This was so unexpected that it startled him extremely. Quite suddenly he rolled over, stared for moment , and struggled into a sitting position. The effort was unexpectedly difficult, and it left him giddy and weak – and amazed.
He rubbed his eyes. The riddle of his surroundings was confusing but his mind was clear – evidently his sleep had benefited him. He was not in a bed at all as he understood the word, but lying naked on a very soft and yielding mattrress in a trough of dark glass.
So Graham wakes up after being asleep for 203 years, having fallen into a coma at the end of the C19th. Wells never explains why this happened, but actually it doesn’t matter, it’s merely a plot device to project Graham into the future and to show us what it is like through the eyes of a late Victorian man.
Whilst asleep Graham has not only became a symbol of hope for the common people, but also, because of the investments made in his name by his friends two centuries before, which have grown enormously , he is actually the Owner, the Master of the world. As soon as he comes back to life he is plunged into the midst of a revolution as the people, led by Boss Ostrog, battle and defeat the oppressive White Council, which was ruling the world in his name.
The London that Graham knew has vanished. The London of the future, with a population of 33 million, is a vast, claustrophic metropolis with countless levels connected by walkways. It has wind-wheels on the roof; huge flying stages for the aircraft of the future; while kinetelephotographs allow words and pictures to be projected around the world. The countryside is empty: the small, historic towns of Graham’s era have vanished as the cities took over the world. The railways have gone; instead there are roads, a hundred yards wide, made of toughened glass called Eadhamite, along which vehicles on rubber wheels sweep along at high speed.
The Revolution over, Graham strives to make sense of this new world. He sees that men and women are different:
To Graham, a typically stiff man from a typically stiff period, not only did these men seem altogether too graceful in person, but altogether too expressive in their vividly expressive faces. They gesticulated, they expressed surprise, interest, amusement, above all they expressed the emotions excited in their minds by the ladies about them with astonishing frankness…The ladies in the company of these gentlemen displayed in dress, bearing and manmer alike, less emphasis and more intricacy. Some affected a classical simplicty of robing and sublety of fold…Others had closely-fitting dresses without seam or belt at the waist, sometimes with long folds falling from the shoulders…Every one’s movements seemed graceful
He discovers the joys of flying, and insists on being taught how to fly a small aircraft. Meanwhile Ostrog gets on with the job of ruling in Graham’s name with minimal interference. However Graham is given a sharp lesson in reality by Ostrog’s niece, Helen Wotton. She tells him that many of the people who defeated the White Council in his name are virtually serfs to the Labour Department:
Your days were the days of freedom…This city – is a prison. Every city is now a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. …All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since – ! You owe your life to them….Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Department. Its offices are everywhere. That blue is is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Department in the end – or seek some way of death.
Helen also tells Graham that he is not being told what is happening by Ostrog:”The people will not go back to their drudgery – they refuse to be disarmed…give them only a leader to speak the desire of their hearts.” Armed with this knowledge Graham confronts Ostrog who confirms that there is indeed unrest: “Multitudes will not go back to work. There is a general strike…They are talking of a Commune.”
And at this point we encounter the worm at the heart of the novel: namely, racism. Ostrog is planning to bring the black police from Africa whom he describes as “fine loyal brutes, with no wash of ideas in their head – such as our rabble has.” But Graham orders him not to do so: “I do not want any negroes brought to London. It is an archaic prejudice perhaps, but I have peculiar feelings about Europeans and the subject races…”
Whilst it might be argued that Wells is showing us that the racial prejudices of his era had survived the centuries, unchallenged and intact, I think that Wells, despite being a member of the socialist Fabian Society, shared them. For this is by no means the only time in his work that he wrote in an openly racist manner. In his short story The Lord of Dynamos (1894), set in a electric power room, a black man Azumi-zi, bullied by the racist and violent overseer, Holroyd, is shown as coming to worship the largest dynamo to extent of sacrificing Holroyd on the machine, before killing himself in the same way. In another short story, Jimmy Goggles the God (1900), Goggles, a deep-sea diver survives an attack on the ship’s crew by local islanders in the Pacific, and emerging from the ocean still clad in his suit, is then venerated by them as a deity until he is rescued.
Graham decides to explore the city for himself, a city still in ferment with processions of revolutionary banners. He runs across the Babble Machines on street corners which blair out constant propaganda: “The Master is sleeping peacefully..He puts great trust in Boss Ostrog” and so on.
And so they went through these factories and places of toil, seeing many painful and grim things. That walk left on Graham’s mind a maze of of memories, fluctuating pictures of swathed halls and crowded vaults, seen through clouds of dust, of intricate machines, the racing threads of looms, the heavy beat of stamping machinery, the roar and rattle of belt and armature, of ill-let subteranean aisles of sleeping places , illimitable vistas of pin-point lights. Here was the smell of tanning, and here the reek of a brewery, and here unprecedented reeks. Everywhere were pillars and cross archings of such,a massiveness as Graham had never before seen, thick Titans of greasy, shining brickwork crushed beneath the weight of that vast city world, even as these anaemic millions were were crushed by its complexity.
Learning that the black police have massacred people in Paris, and are now on their way to London, Graham returns to the surface and is nearly captured by Ostrog, but is freed by his supporters amongst the workers. A second Revolution breaks out, this time against Ostrog, and there is a fierce battle for possession of the great landing stages. At last, as Ostrog’s airfleet nears, Graham decides that he himself will take off and do his best to stop them. On his way to his aircraft he is glimpsed by a young air mechanic: “A tall dark man in a flowing black robe he was, with a white, resolute face, and eyes steadfastly before him.”
In the air Graham successfuly attacks and scatters the fleet, but is caught in an explosion at one of the landing stages, and, clinging to his craft, begins to fall:
He found himself recapitulating with incredible swiftness all that had happened since his awakening, the days of doubt, the days of Empire, and at last the tumultuous discovery of Ostrog’s calculated treachery. The vision had a quality of utter unreality. Who was he? Why was he holding so tightly with his hands? Why could he not let go? In such a fall as this countless dreams have ended. But in a moment he would wake…. His thoughts ran swifter and swifter. He wondered if he should see Helen again. It seemed so unreasonable that he should not see her again. Although he could not look at it, he was suddenly aware that the whirling earth below him was very near. Came a shock and a great crackling and popping of bars and stays.
This novel is a typical Wellsian mixture of imaginative scientific speculation, social comment and plain adventure. As a modern reader I can enjoy these, accepting the era in which he wrote, but I cannot excuse the racism which is the hinge on which the plot turns. As a dystopian vision of the future, you can see influence of this novel in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) (from which the stills above are taken), in Orwell’s 1984 (1948), and even in Woody Allen’s film Sleeper (1973).
In his introduction to an edition of this work published by Oldhams Press in 1921, Wells wrote that when he penned the novel he had considerable belief in its possibility, but now he doubts it: “Much evil may be in store for makind, but to this immense, grim organisation of servitude, our race will never come.” A century later, in an era of rampant globalisation, massive urbanisation and growing economic inequality, I wonder if we are so confident.
Originally called When the Sleeper Wakes on its publication in 1898, Wells rewrote the novel in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes, which is the version from which the quotes above are taken. You can read the original version here.
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