THE SLEEPER AWAKES
A troubled insomniac in 1890s England falls suddenly into a sleep-like trance, from which he does not awake for over two hundred years. During his centuries of slumber, however, investments are made that make him the richest and most powerful man on Earth.
But when he comes out of his trance he is horrified to discover that the money accumulated in his name is being used to maintain a hierarchal society in which most are poor, and more than a third of all people are enslaved.
Oppressed and uneducated, the masses cling desperately to one dream – that the sleeper will awake, and lead them all to freedom.
As I was a little late, I missed the bulk of the catch up chatter (GRUMP) and we stuck pretty faithfully to the book discussion from that point onwards (DOUBLE GRUMP). I might have to outlaw conversations in future…
This was my third or forth time to read this and – as I’d expected – I enjoyed it as much as on previous occasions. However, when I’d read it before, I was a school girl in Zimbabwe – I knew that there was inexcusable racism but had always read the book with the proviso that it was written in another time, during different social mores. On this occasion, I felt like twitter goggles have fallen over my eyes – and all I could see were Problematic Elements everywhere I looked. So we had barely sat down before I burst out all the above.
The others looked at me for a second or two before agreeing that OBVIOUSLY the book had to be read with an awareness of the social structures of the time. It has to be read for what it is or every generation would have to start afresh. They quickly glanced to make sure I ‘got’ it. Then returned to the chat.
In the main, we agreed that this was an incredibly easy to read book, with a simple story at it’s heart. The descriptive elements left some of us cold – particularly in relation to aspects that the author accurately foresaw – TV, propaganda, mass production and so on. The elements that the author had predicted inaccurately fascinated us far more – from the roads taking over the railways to the colonization of France – the brief glimpse that we were presented with was of a world significantly different from our own. Not least one that has experienced both the death of Art and Literature. Language – written and spoken – was of great interest to us for a number of different reasons. Unfortunately, this was such an interesting bit that I temporarily stopped taking notes.
It was a delight to read an old school dystopia – no teenagers running around, no global conflict or post apocalyptic setup. This is a stable, if stifling, society.
H.G. Wells had adapted this from a short story and was apparently never truly content with the results. In comparison to his other works, this felt less like pure SF and closer to a social lecture – a thought projection if you will, with much moralising and discovery of ‘inevitable’ truths. However, despite these limitations, there was a naivety to the writing that impacted on most of us. When this book was written; the world had not yet seen one World war…let alone two. We had barely taken to the skies (that flight had truly captured Wells imagination is quite clear throughout this book  however!) and had not yet conceived of using aeroplanes in battle – perhaps significant that in this book it is the ancient ‘savage’ that conceives it. Women did not yet have the franchise. No country had broken away from the British Empire since America (don’t quote me on that – I’ve googled but am not entirely satisfied with the results). We tried for a second to imagine the impact of this book on the audience of the time…but none of us quite managed it.
With regards to the concepts, we agreed that Wells must have been a very progressive mind for his time. It turns out that even his imagination had limits though – he wanted equality but couldn’t quite conceive of what women would want with it. He envisioned a world where women were free from moral constraints…but lessened without them. And gender was one of the better elements! We had all noticed the odd racist statement throughout the early stages of the book. The only times non-caucasians are mentioned was as a negative. However, at approximately the 2/3’s mark; there is a racist diatribe that quite took our breaths away. It was a sort of horrifying insight to read how overtly racist people were in 1910 (though none of us for one second thought that those thought processes have actually disappeared today). Wince inducing. Class structures and their impact on society is also discussed throughout the book, with an honesty and self awareness that must have been very unfashionable at the time.
Frequently, we wondered if his initial thoughts had been edited out – there were a number of passages about motherhood, drug taking and the like which seemed about to decry the direction the world was heading in, but Wells pulled his punches instead – having his protagonist highlight these awful things then wave them away as it being his own lack of understanding via being stuck in the old mode of thinking.
Regarding characters, we didn’t have a huge amount to say. The protagonist is pretty well drawn but everyone else appears so briefly that it’s difficult to get a fix on them. Additionally, everyone is concealing something from the main character, so must be treated as unreliable. Which is probably why the only two that didn’t, caught our collective eye. Without a doubt, we all of us responded particularly well to the odd chap that meets Graham and basically serves to catch him up. Mr Exposition is funny, irreverant and spoke eloquently. We were quite enamored.
Our discussion around Helen was a bit more controversial. We agreed that it was frustrating on a number of levels to be presented with a character who ostensibly eshews the characteristics of her gender as observed in this book. Helen is not dumb, flighty, weak willed or dependent. However, she is only every present because she is related to a man who is high up in the resistance. Her sole reason to be is to recruit Graham and inspire him to lead. She serves no other purpose than to propel him to greatness. However, it is also incredibly rare to meet a female character from this period who actually speaks and influences events. Helen is passionate, she tells Graham that his view of the world is wrong and sets him straight. Moreover, she acts because it is the right thing to do, not out of any romantic entanglement (we all assume that this is the romance culled from the short story. Good call HG.) with Graham. These traits kind of made her more bearable to some and a downright pioneer to others!
A great meet up and an awesome choice of book for the club. Though slight, we had lots to say! Always a triumph!
p.s. Ultimately though, some 15 years on from first reading this book…I’m still irritated we didn’t get any more info on why he fell asleep in the first place!
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