Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The Coming Race

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The Coming Race Summary

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The Coming Race is an 1870 novel by the British author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, published subsequently under the title Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. The novel follows a nameless young adventurer (who is later given the name Tish) as he explores the underground world of the Vril-ya, humanoid beings who have acquired immense psychic powers by manipulating a force they call “vril” (based on the newly discovered force of electromagnetism). The Coming Race was extremely popular in its time, and “vril” briefly entered the English lexicon, referring to any life-giving or powerful substance. The British yeast-extract product Bovril is named for it. The novel has also had a substantial afterlife amongst occultists, who continue to speculate that Lytton did not invent but discovered vril and the underground civilization of the Vril-ya.

In Victorian England, an unnamed young traveler of independent means is visiting a friend of his who works as a mining engineer. The engineer has recently discovered a deep natural chasm, opening into a newly dug shaft, and the two friends decide to explore it. As the narrator reaches the bottom of the shaft, the rope breaks, killing his friend and stranding the narrator deep underground.

As he explores the bottom of the chasm, the narrator is attacked by a monstrous lizard-like creature. He flees, stumbling upon the entrance to an underground world, inhabited by humanoid beings who, to him, resemble angels: tall, blond, beautiful, and winged. The narrator befriends one of these creatures, despite the lack of a common language, and his new friend takes him on a tour through an underground city whose buildings remind the narrator of ancient Egypt. At the end of the tour, the narrator’s guide takes him to his house and introduces him to his daughter, Zee, and his son, Taee.

Zee and Taee rapidly teach themselves English. The narrator is surprised, but Zee explains that the inhabitants of the underground world, who call themselves the Vril-ya, have a range of parapsychological abilities, including telepathy. She offends the narrator by suggesting that she is much better equipped to learn about him and his world than he is to learn about her. Nevertheless, Zee and Taee are good hosts, and they agree to explain their civilization to the narrator. The bulk of the book is taken up with Zee’s lessons on the Vril-ya and their history.

The Vril-ya are the descendants of human beings who fled the Earth’s surface to escape a catastrophic flood (perhaps the Biblical flood). Due to the harshness of subterranean conditions, the Vril-ya have evolved to be stronger and more intelligent than modern surface-dwelling humans; they have also developed powerful tools. The chief among these is an “all-permeating fluid” called “Vril.” Bulwer-Lytton modeled this substance on the newly-discovered force of electromagnetism, and he imagines it as an energetic force permeating all matter. The Vril-ya are able to control this force at will using Vril Staffs, hollow rods with “several stops, keys or springs by which its force can be altered, modified, or directed — so that by one process it destroys, by another it heals.” Vril Staffs grant their users such awesome destructive power that war is unknown in the underground world: two civilizations fighting with Vril would be certain to destroy one another. Vril can also be used to heal, as well as to achieve telepathy and other apparently paranormal abilities.

The “wings” of the Vril-ya are another technological innovation: something like a personal Vril-powered jetpack. The Vril-ya also have robotic servants, “so pliant to the operations of vril, that they actually seem gifted with reason.” With these technologies, the Vril-ya have built a technological utopia, without violence or lawlessness. The Vril-ya live in separate city-states with different laws: those who do not agree with the laws of one city are free to move to another.

Gender roles amongst the Vril-ya are very different from those of the narrator’s own society. Men (called “An” in the Vril-ya’s language) and women (“Gy”) are legal and political equals, although women are generally considered stronger and more intelligent. They take the pursuer’s role in courtship, but upon marriage, they willingly defer to their husbands. For this reason, the Vril-ya’s benevolent autocrats are all male (as are all senior professionals). Vril-ya couples marry for three-year terms, after which women may choose to pursue a new partner, although this rarely happens in practice.

The Vril-ya believe in a god, but consider it pointless to speculate on the nature of such a being. They believe that life cannot be destroyed, but only changed from one form to another. Bulwer-Lytton clearly approves of the Vril-ya’s belief system, and in the history of the Vril-ya, he satirizes some of the beliefs and debates of his own day: for instance, the historical Vril-ya were plunged into a thousand-year war when a scientist claimed that the Vril-ya were descended from frogs (a satire of the contemporary debate about Darwinism).

Impressed by the Vril-ya, the narrator begins to adopt their clothing and customs. Zee falls in love with him, putting the narrator in a difficult position: Zee is free to propose to him, but if she does he will be at risk; the society will frown on a Vril-ya woman’s marriage to an inferior specimen. Zee confesses her love to her father, who orders Taee to kill the narrator. Taee informs Zee of his orders, and Zee leads the narrator to the chasm by which he first entered the Vril-ya’s world. The narrator concludes with a warning: the Vril-ya will one day run out of space underground and return to the surface, destroying mankind if necessary.