The Works of H. G. Wells: WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Works of H. G. Wells: WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES

Alexander Wallace shuts his eyes for ten minutes...
Imagine laying down for a moment, for a quick nap, expecting it to last for an hour or two. Instead, you wake up centuries in the future. It’s a plot that was done before 1899 by the likes of Washington Irving in Rip Van Winkle, but it is brought to dystopian heights by H. G. Wells in his novel When the Sleeper Wakes, later republished in revised form as The Sleeper Awakes (in my opinion, the former title is superior).

It starts with a man named Graham, a strange sort of fellow with shockingly liberal views for his time, falling asleep in the house of a rich American named Isbister, who later, beyond Graham’s knowledge, leaves to him his vast holdings. Graham does not wake up for two hundred and three years, later becoming known by those in the future as ‘the Sleeper.’ His slumber becomes so ubiquitously known that the phrase “when the Sleeper wakes” is used to refer to something so far off in the future that it is not even worth considering (compare “when snakes will smoke” in Brazil during World War II - and look how it turned out for that country and its people).
But surprising absolutely everyone in this future world, Graham does, in fact, awake. He wonders if he’s dreaming; it’s not an implausible thought, given that the world has changed utterly. But the people of the future are both aghast and enthused at his awakening; without even knowing it, he has become key to their political system in a way he could never have predicted. Graham was not born great, nor did he achieve greatness; he had greatness thrust upon him in the form of a truly massive cross to bear.

This is a world lorded over by a ruling council that tyrannizes most of it. It is a world dominated by the Mammon that is global finance, and a global poor who are now de facto ruled by a bloated successor of the Salvation Army (which is mentioned quite explicitly by name). It is a world run by machines; the lower classes, merely inches away from slavery, are tasked with ensuring that all the machines keep working. Religion has been denigrated to yet another form of commerce, powered by its own indulgences. To quote the book directly:
“To-day is the day of wealth. Wealth now is power as it never was power before—it commands earth and sea and sky. All power is for those who can handle wealth.”
Those reading When The Sleeper Wakes today will see something all too frighteningly familiar in these pages; Wells was someone who was disturbingly prescient; he predicted the atomic bomb in The World Set Free and aerial strategic bombing in The War in the Air - and then lived to see both of those nightmares come to life. I cannot help but be thankful that he did not get to see this dark vision realize itself.

Graham is an interesting character insofar that he is used as a narrative device to answer a certain question: how would a normal person react when suddenly given great influence? He is absolutely a decent person; he spends much of the novel trying to set right so much that is wrong. With this power, he does admittedly indulge a bit; without any training in such a task, he pilots an airship, giving rise to perhaps the best scene in the book. Graham is filled with awe and wonder and slack-jawed terror at the world he has stumbled into; as we age in this world where the facts of life change every decade, don’t we do the same?

This is another book I deliberately have been somewhat vague about; it can be frustrating. But I will say that When the Sleeper Wakes is a shockingly prescient novel, one that presaged the great dystopian works of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury and Yevgeny Zamyatin. In some ways, this book was the ‘ur-example’ (as TvTropes would put it) of that sort of dystopian literature. Read it, and feel the despair that all of the woes of our world were foreseeable over a century ago.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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