The Coming Race – A Book Review, Part II

The legacy of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, The Coming Race, seems to amount to a salty beef extract, originally invented to supply Napolean III’s troops fighting in the Franco-Prussian War and still widely available today.

397px-two_infallible_powers.jpgBovril, a favorite drink in particular of Scottish football (soccer) fans, is named after the first letters of the Latin name for beef and for vril, the powerful ‘electric fluid’ wielded by the superior race who dwell beneath the Earth in Bulwer-Lytton’s popular 1871 novel.  (See Part I for the beginning of this review.)

Vril took off in the popular imagination of the time.  It is comparable to the Indian ideas about prana or the Chinese conception of chi: it is the universe’s underlying vital energy.

But in the hands of the Vril-ya, the underground beings who have developed themselves sufficiently to wield this intrinsic power, it can be a force of ultimate destruction along with its many positive uses and makes the Vril-ya the coming race if they should find their way up here.

The Vril-ya’s language is of Aryan origins.  They resemble North American Indians in physical type.  They carry wings with them so they may fly in graceful aerobatics in the vast vaults beneath the Earth and have developed physically in the following way:

‘The thumb … was much larger, at once longer and more massive, than is found with our species above ground. There is almost, in this, as great a difference as there is between the thumb of a man and that of a gorilla. Secondly, the palm is proportionately thicker than ours–the texture of the skin infinitely finer and softer–its average warmth is greater. More remarkable than all this, is a visible nerve, perceptible under the skin, which starts from the wrist skirting the ball of the thumb, and branching, fork-like, at the roots of the fore and middle fingers. “With your slight formation of thumb,” said the philosophical young [Vril-ya], “and with the absence of the nerve which you find more or less developed in the hands of our race, you can never achieve other than imperfect and feeble power over the agency of vril.” ‘

However, this hasn’t stopped us above-ground from trying, since the book also held out the possibility that over a few thousand years or so, mere humans if they tried hard enough might also develop such powers.

In 1925, Arthur Lovell, for instance, who wrote a book called Ars Vivendi Or The Art of Acquiring Bodily and Mental Vigour, was busy teaching people to achieve supernormal abilities by full and complete breathing, drawing from the infinite ocean of energy in which we live.  He called this energy ‘vril’…  His book went through many printings and several editions.

Author Matthew Sweet’s foreword to the Hesperus Press 2007 edition of The Coming Race adds greatly to Bulwer-Lytton’s text, giving us amusing context and better understanding of those times.  His foreword begins with the tale of Lovell.  He quotes from the master: “Vril naturally signifies the height of dominion attained by cultivation of man’s latent power.”  Lovell believed he was the forerunner of an improved race of humans.

Sweet notes that Bulwer-Lytton told one friend that the book was an attempt to fictionalise “the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races.”

Sweet takes pleasure in pointing out the remnants of vril obsession: “excitable scholars of Nazi occultism” who believe that technicians of the Third Reich planned to win the Battle of Britain with a fleet of vril-powered flying saucers; “vril-generators” are available for purchase to lead you underground to the wondrous realms there; vril-wands have apparently been offered for sale on the Internet.  (For more on the current state of vril you may find the Borderland Science Research Foundation of interest.)

I should outline Bulwer-Lytton’s story better than I have: the ideas and cultural context have intrigued me more than the simple outlandish tale of a young traveller who hears rumours of an unknown world of light and activity underground and accidentally finds himself below in the realm of angel-like winged beings called the Vril-ya.

icarus.jpgThe wings it turns out are worn rather than born but the Vril-ya’s facility with flight due to their command of vril is only one sign of their superiority.

Any threats to the Vril-ya’s way of life can be handled by young children who are imposingly mature and adept with vril: capable of wiping out entire cities with its power if they so choose.

The novel is utopian in that it examines the ideal life that the Vril-ya have developed for themselves.   It wittily in many places juxtaposes that life with what nineteenth century humans have wrought.

The female is the most powerful gender.  Larger, more facile with vril, they chase and woo the male.  Do not dare to thwart their romantic intent.

Their architecture resembles early Egyptian but is more fantastically graceful.  Their world is lit by the careful manipulation of vril.

Seeking to impress his hosts, the narrator dwells on the excellence of democratic institutions at home, and borrowing from the speech of a recently heard American senator, predicted that “the flag of freedom should float over an entire continent, and two hundred millions of intelligent citizens, accustomed from infancy to the daily use of revolvers, should apply to a cowering universe the doctrine of the Patriot Monroe.”

His kind host, who took it upon himself to protect this odd visitor from the other Vril-ya faction who thought dissection was the correct response to a stranger’s presence, immediately obliged our hero never to mention any of this to other Vril-ya.

Bulwer-Lytton’s narrator explores the life of the Vril-ya in detail, with great emphasis on the development of their language, and their mythology about being descended from frogs.  In the pursuit of this he makes reference to the science of phrenology and the practise of mesmerism in his own world.

Eventually, he understands he must escape back to that world.  The daughter of his host has set her romantic sights on him and cannot be denied.  His host regrets to inform him that if his daughter should take our hero’s hand in marriage, then he will be forced to execute him for this desecration of the Vril-ya way of life.

Desperate, our hero searches for a way to climb out and above.  Finally, the daughter saves him, lifting him up to the surface, letting him go out of her love, and accepting that they are not, really, compatible.

Sorrowfully, he watches her descend into the gloom of the chasm by which she brought him up, hearing only ‘the swan-like sough of her wings.’   Years go by as he returns to a life in the hurly-burly of human existence, yet still he thinks of her and the formidable power of the Vril-ya.  At the end of it, he writes: “I have thought it my duty to my fellow men to place on record these forewarnings of The Coming Race.”

(By the way, the concept of the hollow earth is still alive and well.  Currently, physicist Brooks Agnew is planning an expedition to the North Pole to find the opening that leads down into the world below.)

(And one final interesting note on the persistence of Bulwer-Lytton’s vision: The book is mentioned in the song by David Bowie, “Oh! You Pretty Things”: “Look out at your children / See their faces in golden rays / Don’t kid yourself they belong to you / They’re the start of the coming race”. )


A note on Hesperus Press:

In the interest of transparency, I should say that I was offered a copy of their edition of The Coming Race if I would review it, and I was pleased to do so.  The book physically is well produced and finely made.  They are an English publisher with a line of shorter works by well-known figures of literature such as Voltaire, Woolf, Balzac and Austen.


Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Culture, Science, Science Fiction, Writing

3 Comments on “The Coming Race – A Book Review, Part II”

  1. […] quite work out whether I’m completely terrified or just utterly bewildered.  On perusing this particularly pleasant review of The Coming Race, I was directed to what I can only describe as the most bizarre website […]

  2. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi sandrar,

    Thanks for dropping by…


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