27 January 2014

Review: The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 252 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1910)

Acquired October 2013
Read December 2013
The Sleeper Awakes
by H. G. Wells

Is there any early sf subgenre where H. G. Wells doesn't wake up one day and think, "Well, I could do that better?" What The War of the Worlds did for the invasion narrative and The War in the Air for the revolution, The Sleeper Awakes does for the utopian sleeper story-- those peculiar stories where a fellow from the fin de siècle falls asleep and wakes up in far future, like Looking Backward or News from Nowhere (or, much less famously, Looking Within). Wells has actually thought about this would actually be like: there's no guided tour that shows the sleeper what the new world is like in precise detail, because people lie to him, people have their own agendas or biases, because people just take aspects of their own society for granted and don't even think to explain them. Also he even explains how the sleeper could sleep so long without, you know, just dying, and why people would want to keep him alive! It's this thinking-through of generic assumptions that makes Wells the first true science fiction writer, not to mention one of the best.

In that hallmark of good sf, much of what Graham (our sleeper) learns isn't through exposition, but through unfamiliar details. Years before Heinlein's door dilated, Graham runs into a collapsible wall! He watches television and deduces aspects of the future from it. And instead of being a utopia he encounters, it's a dystopia-- but when revolution comes, it's not a tidy one that replaces the ugly society with the beautiful. Wells is too good for that, too.

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