Illuminated initial T

wo works of utopian fiction published in the early 1870s confront the implications of both Darwinian evolution and the effects of modern technology on human society — Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872). According to J. O. Bailey, the present and future effects of machinery proved an attractive subject for late-nineteenth-century writers of utopias: “ By 1871 it was clear that a Machine Age lay just ahead and that the future would, on this account, differ in many ways from the present. Naturally, the effort to prepare for this future took frequently the form of utopian or satiric fiction”.1

The Coming Race, a milestone in the development of science fiction, joins two important Victorian themes: the effects of the machine and evolution upon human society. The ‘science of energy’ provides a link between the two. Universally regarded as the first post-Darwinian prognostic utopia, Bulwer-Lytton’s utopian novel places major emphasis on biological and social evolutionism but also hints at a wide range of contemporary issues.

This novel, which has only a rudimental plot, is a remarkable for the multiplicity of its literary and non-literary sources. Many 'fantastic' details can be traced back to earlier utopias, from L. Holberg's Nicolas Klimius (1741), for its subterranean setting, to R. Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1750), for the convention of the winged men. Its scientific and pseudoscientific material includes suggestions from geology (C. Lyell) and pseudogeology (from J. C. Symmes2 to C. Reed), electromagnetism, phrenology, linguistics, and psychology, for phenomena like mesmerism and hypnotism.

As is customary in utopian fiction, The Coming Race3 starts with the concealment of the time and space coordinates of the community to be described. 'In the year 18--, happening to be in ---', the reticent narrator descends into 'the recesses of the --- mine' (p. 1) with a professional engineer. The details of the descent into 'this strange world, amidst the bowels of the earth' (p. 6) are of the fashionable kind established by Jules Verne. The observation of the internal strata is the occasion for a lecture in geology, with a wink at the volcanologists' view in the reference to 'a chasm jagged and seemingly charred at the sides, as if burst asunder at some distant period by volcanic fires' (p. 2). In the course of the difficult descent, the engineer precipitates, 'life utterly extinct.' Needless to underline the topical connection between evolution and death.

On entering this brave new world, the narrator is surprised by a noise, seemingly a hiss:

While I was bending over his corpse in grief and horror, I heard close at hand a strange sound between a snort and a hiss; and turning instinctively to the quarter from which it came, I saw emerging from a dark fissure in the rock a vast and terrible head, with open jaws and dull, ghasty, hungry eyes - the head of a monstrous reptile resembling that of the crocodile or alligator, but infinitely larger than the largest creature of that kind I had ever beheld in my travels. 4(p. 6)

As remarked by J. A. V. Chapple5, fossil findings revived the dragons of the legend. Fires and monstrous reptiles emerging from the dark connote the place as a primeval hell. Nevertheless, the stranger is attracted to the peculiarities of the landscape, including 'a magnificent fountain of the luminous fluid which I call naphta' (p. 66). The place has a markedly oxymoronic quality, with its display of Jurassic animals and plants and its futuristic mechanical inventions. Likewise, the inhabitants combine animism and use of radioactivity. Philogenetically, they are several mutations ahead of ordinary mankind.

The narrator reports how the first encounter left him awestruck:

It came within a few yards of me, and at the sight and presence of it an indescribable awe and tremor seized me, rooting my feet to the ground. It reminded me of symbolical images of Genius or Demon that are seen on Etruscan vases or limned on the walls of Eastern sepulchres - images that borrow the outlines of man, and are yet of another race. It was tall, not gigantic, but tall as the tallest men below the height of giants. Its chief covering seemed to me to be composed of large wings folded over its breast and reaching to its knees; the rest of its attire was composed of an under tunic and leggings of some thin fibrous material. It wore on its head a kind of tiara that shone with jewels, and carried in its right hand a slender staff of bright metal like polished steel. [9]

The figure (‘I could scarcely bring myself to call him man’) is suggestive of an angel or a demi-god for its seraphic features and use of mechanical wings, but there is something sinister about it: 'I felt that this manlike image was endowed with forces inimical to man'.

Induced to a state of sleep by the subduing power of his host (p. 12), the newcomer wakes to meet the rest of the tribe, 'a group of silent forms', of 'the gravity and quietude of orientals'. They call themselves 'Ana', in their language: 'Men'. It is worth pointing out that the accusative, 'Ananda' is the Sanskrit for 'Perfect'. On the implications of the analogy between their language and Sanskrit I will return later on.

Compared to the narrator's industrious countrymen, they appear more advanced in various respects. Not only are they stronger and more impassible; they employ all sorts of automata for their daily needs, and can rely on extraordinary aerial and terrestrial vessels. Also, they have developed their mental powers to the full. They practice mesmerism, telepathy and hypnopaedia ( later to be revived in H. Huxley's Brave New World). Moreover, their touch provokes a sort of electric shock, of variable intensity. It can heal or kill, induce sleep, communicate thoughts, but also erase all information from the brain of the receiver.

The origin of this power is a mysterious agent, 'Vril'. It gives the name to the utopian race, the 'Vril-ya'. The narrator gives his approximate explanation of its nature: "...I should call it electricity, except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, & C."

Vril represents

the unity in natural energic agencies, which has been conjectured by many philosophers above ground, and which Faraday thus intimates under the more cautious term of correlation:

'I have long held an opinion', says that illustrious experimentalists, 'almost amounting to a conviction, in common, I believe, with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent, that they are convertible as it were, into one another, and possess equivalents of power in their action'.

...These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of Vril, which Faraday would perhaps call 'atmospheric magnetism', they can influence the variations of temperature - in plain words, the weather; that by other operations, akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, & c., but applied scientifically through Vril conductors, they can exercise over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent nor surpassed in the romances of the mystics. To all such agencies they give the common name of Vril. [28]

'Vril', the unifying agent of many different effects, is the fictional interpretation of Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction. In the early thirties, before Maxwell's canonical definition of electromagnetic field, Faraday had suggested that a magnetic impulse can be transformed into an electric one. This resulted in the revolutionary perception of the unity of all physical manifestations; moreover, it conveyed the impression that the earth was covered with lines of force and that to interfere with one meant to affect the whole globe6.

The emerging theories about energy were increasingly eroding the belief in a substantial distinction between mind and matter. The Vril-ya believe that matter is energy, and that there is no barrier between the physical and the psychical domain. This accounts for Bulwer's shift from magnetism in the physical sense to psychic magnetism, or 'animal magnetism'.

Also, Vril combines the properties of different rays. Interestingly, Bulwer suggests the properties detected, years later, in 'x' rays, Geissler's tubes and lazer beams. The 'magic' staff carried by the Ana is a sort of multi-purpose generator:

...this fluid is capable of being raised and disciplined into the mightiest agency over all forms of matter, animate or inanimate. It can destroy like the flash of lightning; yet, differently applied, it can replenish or invigorate life, heal, and preserve,7 and on it they chiefly rely for the cure of disease, or rather for enabling the physical organization to re-establish the due equilibrium of its natural powers, and thereby to cure itself. By this agency they rend way through the most solid substances, and open valleys for culture through the rocks of their subterranean wilderness. From it they extract the light which supplies their lamp, finding it steadier, softer, and healthier than the other inflammable materials they had formely used.

Moreover, Vril is used as a propellent for vehicles, terrestrial and aerial. The latter 'were of light substances, not the least resembling our balloons, but rather our boats and pleasure vessels, with helm and rudder, with large wings and paddles, and a central machine worked by Vril'. According to most commentators, it owes its name to 'vir', man, and is to be interpreted as sexual energy. But, beyond the undeniable sexual overtones, it is 'the mystical agency which art can extract from the occult properties of nature'.

The Vryl-ya are what today would be called a 'eubiotic' community, devoted to all sorts of natural medicines and practices, from pranotherapy and vegetarianism, to aromatherapy and music theraphy. This may seem inconsistent with their passion for technology, but in their (and Bulwer's?) mind their technology simply implied a more fruitful use of natural resources. They enjoy fashionable Victorian facilities, like Turkish baths. Like all utopians, they have their own distinguished musical devices: “Every room has its mechanical contrivances for melodious sounds, usually tuned down to soft-murmured notes, which seem like sweet whispers from invisible spirits'. They may be said to dwell in an atmosphere of music and fragrance” (69). How such fragrance matches with the char and naphta vapours is unsaid.

The Vril-ya are now a peaceful community of equals among equals. As a form of adaptation to each other's destructive potential, even a child has an annihilating medium at his disposal, they have become non-competitive and harmless to the other members. This recalls H. Spencer's observations on hero-worship and spontaneous reduction of aggressiveness. Here, the power to which they have surrendered their anti-social feelings is the superior power of Vril.

Reduced in number because of a strict birth control, they are a self-disciplined autarchic population. There is no goverment in the traditional sense of the word, despite the election of a supreme magistrate, or 'Tur'.

'The Gy-ei are in the fullest enjoyment of all the rights of equality with males, for which certain philosophers above ground contend' - the reference to Mill is patent. The Gy-ei are superior in the use of the Vril; Vril has made Zee, the subterranean woman-guide, almost omniscient and invincible:

Though I had a secret persuasion that, whatever the real effects of Vril upon matter, Mr. Faraday could have proved her a very shallow philosopher as to its extent or its causes, I had no doubt that Zee could have brained all the fellows of the Royal Society, one after the other, with a blow of her fist'. [81]

Children are self-sufficient. From an early age, they can operate automata and machines. There is no explicit mention of any eugenetic measure, common in utopias, but their physical perfection is underlined. To convey the idea of the Ana's superiority, together with their shortcomings, the narrator resorts to phrenology and paleontology:

Their conformation of skull has marked differences from that of any known races in the upper world, though I cannot help thinking it a development, in the course of countless ages, of the Brachycephalic type of the Age of Stone in Lyell's 'Elements of Geology', ch. X., p. 113, as compared with the Dolichocephalic type of the beginning of the Age of Iron, correspondent with that now so prevalent amongst us, and called the Celtic type. It has the same comparative massiveness of forehead, not receding like the Celtic- the same even roundness in the frontal organs; but it is far loftier in the apex, and far less pronounced in the hinder cranial hemisphere where phrenologists place the animal organs. To speak as a phrenologist, the cranium common to the Vril-ya has the organs of weight, number, tune, form, order, causality, very largely developed; that of construction much more pronounced than that of ideality. Those which are called the moral organs, such as conscientiousness and benevolence, are amazingly full, amativeness and combativeness are both small; adhesiveness large; the organ of destructiveness (i. e. of determined clearance of intervening obstacles) immense, but less than that of benevolence; and their philoprogenitiveness takes rather the character of compassion and tenderness to things that need aid or protection than of the animal love of offspring.

Their association with apes is removed: '...the object of the higher races of the Ana through countless generations has been to erase all vestige of connexion with hairy vertebrata' (85)8 In fact, they do not 'descend' from apes but from a giant (hairless) frog.

Even their language testifies to their superiority. The creation of a fictional language, which serves to add a quasi-realistic quality to the community evoked, is a distinctive feature of utopian fiction, but Ch. XII of The Coming Race is a veritable essay in linguistics. The remark that the language of the Vril-ya is Aryan or Proto-Indo-European is first of all an occasion to acknowledge the work by Max Müller, linguist and orientalist, to whom the book is inscribed. Also, this detail concerning the Ana's origin connects them to the Aryan super-humans who were object of speculation in esoteric circles. According to the mystic theory of races eventually codified by Theosophic Society, the history of Mankind undergoes ascending phases until the advent of a superior race, the embodiment of physical, mental and spiritual development. The coming race would be Aryan - the notorious fame of the book with the Third Reich is well known.9

The reference to Sanskrit texts provides a further element in the interpretation of Vril, the mysterious power which makes the Vril-ya invincible. VR is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word-root indicating the life force. It is the life principle in the Vedas, the equivalent of the Stoics' pneuma, and both merge in the concept of magnetic field10. For all its implications, Vril is a sort of modern (scientific) variation of the philosophers' stone.11 Also, VR as well as AN are Sanskrit roots of different names of Shiva. These details contribute to build the image of a powerful race, who master the principle of life. This wish is a typical theme of scientific fiction: the long line of demiurges includes Frankenstein (the descendant of ancient alchemists), Dr. Moreau, who endeavours to reproduce the evolutionary process by turning animals into men, down to A. Huxley's Director of the Hatcheries.

The Ana's achievements, their super-powers make them attractive for the scientific-minded narrator, but constitute their threatening side. The narrator has a premonition about the dangers of his omnipotent lover and escapes while in time.

On the wings of Zee, he emerges to daylight as if rescued from death, leaving behind the Hades of the Future, as Orpheus left Euridices. The mythical pattern of the descent into the underworld is employed to convey a warning for contemporaries and posterity. It is a strongly self-protecting message, in keeping with the utopian fixations, but also with Victorian racial policy at large, for which Darwinism and esoterism provided a fertile soil.

The fittest creatures which will conquer the earth may not be men or manlike creatures, but man's mechanical inventions. This idea, together with other Victorian obsessions, is the object of S. Butler's satire in Erewhon12, his 'apostate' utopia. Erewhon, published anonymously in 1871, owed its immediate success to its being received as a replica of The Coming Race by the same author.13

The two plots are strikingly similar. Also, the Darwinian view of evolution is at the core of the fictional construction of both works, but, as Butler remarked in his foreword to the second edition of his novel, they approach it from divergent angles. In Erewhon the focus is not on the modification of the human species, but on the very concept of evolution and the contrasting interpretations to which Butler devoted all his life of antiacademic self-proclaimed ‘philosopher'14. The book originates from Butler's early fascination with The Origin of Species, but its editorial history bears witness to the author's progressive dismissal of his Darwinian faith15.

Butler had read The Origin during his voluntary exile in New Zealand16 (recalled in Erewhon as 'the colony from which I had started my adventures'). In New Zealand, as we read in Unconscious Memory, Butler 'became one of Mr. Darwin's many enthusiastic admirers, and wrote a philosophic dialogue upon The Origin of Species'. A copy was sent to Darwin and a correspondence between the two went on until Butler accused the former of plagiarism from his Life and Habit. The rupture was lifelong.

Reports of English settlers in New Zealand and Butler's own autobiographical accounts in A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, hand down the image of the writer dividing his insular life between mountain expeditions (the pass through which the narrator descends to Erewhon is Whitcombe Pass, discovered by Butler and his friend Smith in 1861)17, sheep farming, 'meditations on Christianity' and, notably, on evolution. Butler's reports of his life and opinions in New Zealand, and his two contributions to the local paper, The Press — 'Darwin among the Machines' (13/6/63), and 'Lucubratio Ebria' (29/7/65) — provide the miscellaneous raw material for Erewhon.

The passage which introduces the spatial and temporal ‘otherness’, typical of the ‘utopian experience,’ is the narrator’s dream. Overcome by fear, cold and distress, he falls asleep:

I dreamed that there was an organ placed in my master's wool-shed: the wool-shed faded away, and the organ seemed to grow and grow amid a blaze of brilliant light, till it became like a golden city upon the side of a mountain, with rows upon rows of pipes set in cliffs and precipices, one above the other, and in mysterious caverns, like that of Fingal, within whose depths I could see the burnished pillars gleaming. [59]

Here Butler introduces the main theme of the book, organ growth and change. His beloved musical instrument allows him a most suitable biological pun28. Also, the excerpt anticipates the principle of instability and mutability in and beyond the realm of biology.

The traveller narrator finds himself in a landscape resembling some alpine villages in Italy ('I will spare the reader any description of the town, and would only bid him think of Domodossola and Faido'29. p. 80). (Ill. I) In Erewhon machines are banned and carcasses can occasionally be found – like fossil skeletons of some extinct animals. Having abandoned all mechanical contrivances, the Erewhonians have reverted to a very simple, but also backward life-style.

In fact in Erewhon there are two views concerning the machines: the prevailing party has it that machines should be 'killed' lest they reach such an evolutive stage as to overpower men. The basis of this view is that machines are animated creatures with their own autonomous life. Man could become to the machine what parasites are to animals, dependent on them and enslaved to the point of becoming mere extensions of the mechanical masters. This view was first held by Butler in 'Darwin among the machines'. Apart from the concept of evolution, attached to it, this was the view held by the back-to-nature, anti-technological current in Victorian thought. The victory of this attitude is responsible for the regression of the Erewhonians to a medieval state.

The second, minority view, held by one eccentric philosopher, was that machines are not separated from men, but are mere extensions of the user's horse-powers. After all, claims the philosopher, man is a 'machinate mammal'. This view informs 'Lucubratio Ebria' and Butler would later subscribe to it.

Around the machine crux, several threads interweave. The presentation of the first view is above all a vehicle for the author's debunk of contemporary misuse of analogy. As Butler explained in his foreword, he had no intention to expose Darwin's theory to satire, by applying the laws of evolution to machines, as if they were living, evolving beings; on the contrary, his satire aimed at the analogical reasoning by which 'a famous man' (i. e. Paley), by assimilating machines and living beings was inferring the existence of God from a watch.

The two views of the machine, as either a monster eventually inimical to man, or simply a natural extension of human organs, are conveyed with 'almost perfect intellectual ambivalence'20. Hence the need, for the reader who wishes to solve the many riddles posed by the hoodwinking author, to resort to extra-textual evidence. While addressing the topical machine issue, Butler was in fact defining his own idea of evolution: he no longer accepted external pressure as the factor which triggered modification, but was placing the evolutive impulse within the organ, which becomes the sole responsible of its own evolution.

Like the solitary Erewhonian Professor, he came to think that a wooden limb is no less a limb than one of flesh, or that an umbrella is the outcome of a natural process of growth of a human arm in case of rain.21 In a testamentary note, Butler takes pride in his ‘emphasising the analogies between the development of organs of our bodies and of those which are not incorporate with our bodies and which we call tools or machines. (Erewhon and Luck or Cunning?)’22

Last modified 28 June 2006