The Dystopia Files: When the Sleeper Wakes
H.G. Wells originally published When the Sleeper Awakes in 1898 as a serial in The Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper. In his preface to the 1910 edition, The Sleeper Awakes, he expressed disappointment with the book, claiming that it was hastily composed and overwrought and that he was badly in need of a vacation at the time. He also claimed that in editing the original he did not rewrite it, as what concerned him at the age of thirty-one no longer did at forty-three. So he cut out some of the fat and reworked the latter part of the book to give it more thoroughness and depth. What has come down to us in this 2003 Modern Library edition, When the Sleeper Wakes, is not one of Wells’ better novels but a template dystopia containing both accurate and inaccurate forecasts, as well as the fundamental dystopian elements of class war and awakening consciousness under authoritarian rule.
Like The Invisible Man, this H.G. Wells novel is about coming into possession of great powers at a greater, unforeseen cost. A young man who hasn’t slept for six nights, due to “overwork” on an unspecified project, falls into a coma for a couple of centuries and wakes up the wealthiest and most idolized man on earth. The future into which he awakens is alien to him. He must learn not only to negotiate it on a functional level but to manage his popularity and power. To complicate matters, his awakening precipitates revolution and overthrow of the governing entity, the Council, which has managed his estate and used it to bring the world under its rule.
However, it’s not that unattractive a world at first. It’s full of inventions and technological marvels, most of which are now commonplace—airplanes, televisions, automated vending, ubiquitous advertising, etc—and were not yet in existence when Wells wrote the original. The world order that Wells projects is exclusively urban and ruled by a free-market monopoly: “The whole world was civilised; the whole world dwelt in cities; the whole world was property.” People have abandoned the countryside and suburbs for a higher standard of living in urban centers. Mechanized farming has made agricultural labor obsolete. All of which Wells regards as a “new stage” of human development, the “logical consequence of an epoch of invention.” Comparing this to what has actually happened a century from Wells’ prediction we find a different logic at work. Advances in communication, transportation and distribution have resulted in sprawl. While the cities have indeed boomed, so have the suburbs. Most property isn’t under the ownership of an individual or corporation but governments, which have remained more powerful than private entities. For example, Ted Turner may own 2 million acres but the federal government owns 624 million, which is more than a quarter of all U.S. land.
The Council, which was originally a group of lawyers and accountants established to manage the sleeper’s estate, has done its job so effectively that its holdings include most of the world. The Council has also grown to become the world’s government: “..in its development it had continually used its wealth to tip the beam of political decisions and its political advantages to grasp yet more and more wealth. At last the party organisations of two hemispheres were in its hands; it became an inner council of political control.” Ironically, it was sleeper’s unconsciousness that enabled the Council to invest its way to plutocratic power. So it was not the sleeper himself who bought the world but a financial institution acting in his name. After purchasing political influence, the Council set about regime change in China and Asia and secured their natural resources. It gathered armies of guards and police and bought out the unions. Eventually, it ruled openly, using the sleeper as its figurehead. The result is a financially monopolized future: “So the magnificent dream of the nineteenth century, the noble project of universal individual liberty and universal happiness, touched by a disease of honour, crippled by a superstition of absolute property, crippled by the religious feuds that had robbed the common citizens of education, robbed men of standards of conduct, and brought the sanctions of morality to utter contempt, had worked itself out in the face of invention and ignoble enterprise, first to a warring plutocracy, and finally to the rule of a supreme plutocrat.”
Wells wrote The Sleeper during the Guilded Age, with its robber barons, monopoly trusts, rapid industrialization, stratification, money politics and religious fervor. He saw in property a dishonorable superstition, in religion a belligerent distraction, and in invention and enterprise a means to power. So he gave us a future of technological wonders ruled by a brain trust of money managers, and maintained by indentured drudges, itinerant dependents who resemble temporary workers. Religion, as such, has fragmented into sects and cults that operate like a service-sector economy of professional fortune-tellers. The great cultural works have been replaced by gadgets and amusements. Education is privatized, contracted to a “Public School Trust,” a “syndicate,” and consists at the highest level of little more than knowing the names of the great cultural icons and at the lowest level “a few simple principles–obedience–industry,” so as to “to fight against popular discontent.” Every civil function is run by a trust, or what we’d now call a corporation.
The dramatic structure of this book follows the sleeper’s discovery of his purpose and destiny in a world not only alien to him but founded on principles abhorrent to his nature. The narrative traces his awakening to the ugly realities of this world and his necessary role as its leader. As he becomes conscious, he passes from helplessness and ignorance to ability and understanding and, finally, to heroism. From his first toddling steps to his fall from the sky like an Icarus, Wells’ hero serves as a metaphor for both individual and social awakening.