H. G. Wells is known as one of the fathers of science fiction and a pioneer of scientific romance.
While Wells’s masterworks, such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are perennial favorites, general readers aren’t as likely to delve into Wells’s impressive but sometimes obscure back catalog. Now that ABC-TV has launched a new Wells TV series, Time after Time, which borrows from The Time Machine in sending Wells himself to our era to battle Jack the Ripper, it’s a great time to take a look at one of the obscure oddities in the Wells canon: When the Sleeper Wakes, another entry in Wells’s time travel oeuvre, but one that is distinctly different from his more famous time travel novel.
When the Sleeper Wakes is the first title for a book that underwent significant changes and revisions during Wells’s lifetime. Originally published as a serial between 1898 to 1903 – imagine waiting five years to find out the end! – the book was retitled The Sleeper Awakes for its subsequent single-volume book release in 1910. This new and revised version improved the quality of the writing and changed elements of the story to better support its author’s avowed socialism.
In the story, a man named Graham takes a sleeping potion and wakes in the year 2100, where he learns that through the miracle of compound interest, the bank accounts maintained by his sleeping body over the previous century more or less centralized all of humanity’s financial systems under his control. The trustees who managed the world’s money on his behalf fear the loss of power they would sustain once Graham is awake and actively managing his money, so they turn Graham into a puppet ruler and a tool to help keep the peasantry exploited in the name of money. Graham sides with the peasants and the workers and leads a revolution to overthrow the financiers and restore freedom.
The question, though, is whether the novel’s power exceeds its limitations, and in this case the limitations are rather painfully obvious. The book is less a vehicle for telling an exciting story than it is an effort to show how Big Money will invariably betray the promise of socialism unless and until the majority of society can come together to take full control of society’s resources.
While the novel is rather blunt in its promotion of the socialist ideal – some might even say that the novel is too didactic – the science fiction elements are still captivating even today. Wells envisions a world of airports and airplanes decades before such things were commonplace, and he foresaw that urbanization would depopulate the countryside. Moreover, his central idea of a sleeper waking up in the future – one borrowed not just from Rip Van Winkle but also from ancient stories of King Arthur and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus – influenced pop culture from Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) to an episode of Futurama. However, because of the aforementioned issues with didacticism, the novel is one that is more likely to be studied and admired than read for enjoyment.
At heart, When the Sleeper Wakes is an interesting study in early dystopia. We see in the world of 2100 anticipations of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, decades before their time. The society depicted in the novel is more than a little similar to the shocking dichotomy seen in the great silent epic Metropolis between the glittering rich in their fantastic towers and the oppressed workers in the bowels of the city. This novel helped set the template for all of the modern dystopias in which a wealthy elite live in idle splendor while the oppressed masses serve them in misery.
Therefore, while this may not be top-tier Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes has enough originality and more than enough importance to make it well worth the read, especially if you’ve already run through Wells’s most classic novels and are looking for something to fill void.
This science fiction book review is written by John S., a certified essay writer who has been working at Smart Writing Service since 2008 helping students with academic writing.