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You’ve been asleep hundreds of years. Awake at last, you’re the richest man on earth, thanks to the powers of compounded interest. You’ve got a few Issues, however. You’re a zealot of a socialist; and, in real life, your dreams have gone awry.

As summed up at, that’s the premise of  The Sleeper Awakes, which H.G. Wells published in 1899. I’m reading Sleeper now on my iPod Touch—and listening to it, too, via my Kindle’s text to speech feature, when I tread or walk—and I would recommend hanging on despite the slow start. You can also download Sleeper as a free audio book from LibriVox, or read an overview in Wikipedia.

E-book and video buffs might enjoy the following extract. Is this where Vooks and the like will lead us, with video more or less displacing text in the novel?

At the end of the excerpt I’ll ask a similar Marshall McLuhan 101 question.  – D.R.

From “Chapter VII: In the Silent Rooms”

…he noticed there were no books, no newspapers, no writing materials. "The world has changed indeed," he said. He observed one entire side of the outer room was set with rows of peculiar double cylinders inscribed with green lettering on white that harmonized with the decorative scheme of the room, and in the centre of this side projected a little apparatus about a yard square and having a white smooth face to the room. A chair faced this. He had a transitory idea that these cylinders might be books, or a modern substitute for books, but at first it did not seem so.

The lettering on the cylinders puzzled him. At first sight it seemed like Russian. Then he noticed a suggestion of mutilated English about certain of the words.

"Thi Man huwdbi Kin" forced itself on him as "The Man who would be King."

"Phonetic spelling," he said. He remembered reading a story with that title, then he recalled the story vividly, one of the best stories in the world. But this thing before him was not a book as he understood it. He puzzled out the titles of two adjacent cylinders. "The Heart of Darkness" he had never heard of before nor "The Madonna of the Future"–no doubt if they were indeed stories, they were by post-Victorian authors.

He puzzled over this peculiar cylinder for some time and replaced it. Then he turned to the square apparatus and examined that. He opened a sort of lid and found one of the double cylinders within, and on the upper edge a little stud like the stud of an electric bell. He pressed this and a rapid clicking began and ceased. He became aware of voices and music, and noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face. He suddenly realised what this might be, and stepped back to regard it.

On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in clear small voices. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube. His interest was seized at once by the situation, which presented a man pacing up and down and vociferating angry things to a pretty but petulant woman. Both were in the picturesque costume that seemed so strange to Graham. "I have worked," said the man, "but what have you been doing?" "Ah!" said Graham. He forgot everything else, and sat down in the chair. Within five minutes he heard himself, named, heard "when the Sleeper wakes," used jestingly as a proverb for remote postponement, and passed himself by, a thing remote and incredible. But in a little while he knew those two people like intimate friends.

At last the miniature drama came to an end, and the square face of the apparatus was blank again.

It was a strange world into which he had been permitted to see, unscrupulous, pleasure seeking, energetic, subtle, a world too of dire economic struggle; there were allusions he did not understand, incidents that conveyed strange suggestions of altered moral ideals, flashes of dubious enlightenment. The blue canvas that bulked so largely in his first impression of the city ways appeared again and again as the costume of the common people. He had no doubt the story was contemporary, and its intense realism was undeniable. And the end had been a tragedy that oppressed him. He sat staring at the blankness.

He started and rubbed his eyes. He had been so absorbed in the latter-day substitute for a novel, that he awoke to the little green and white room with more than a touch of the surprise of his first awakening.

He stood up, and abruptly he was back in his own wonderland. The clearness of the kinetoscope drama passed, and the struggle in the vast place of streets, the ambiguous Council, the swift phases of his waking hour, came back. These people had spoken of the Council with suggestions of a vague universality of power. And they had spoken of the Sleeper; it had not really struck him vividly at the time that he was the Sleeper. He had to recall precisely what they had said….

He walked into the bedroom and peered up through the quick intervals of the revolving fan. As the fan swept round, a dim turmoil like the noise of machinery came in rhythmic eddies. All else was silence. Though the perpetual day still irradiated his apartments, he perceived the little intermittent strip of sky was now deep blue–black almost, with a dust of little stars….

He resumed his examination of the rooms. He could find no way of opening the padded door, no bell nor other means of calling for attendance. His feeling of wonder was in abeyance; but he was curious, anxious for information. He wanted to know exactly how he stood to these new things. He tried to compose himself to wait until someone came to him. Presently he became restless and eager for information, for distraction, for fresh sensations.

He went back to the apparatus in the other room, and had soon puzzled out the method of replacing the cylinders by others. As he did so, it came into his mind that it must be these little appliances had fixed the language so that it was still clear and understandable after two hundred years. The haphazard cylinders he substituted displayed a musical fantasia. At first it was beautiful, and then it was sensuous. He presently recognised what appeared to him to be an altered version of the story of Tannhauser. The music was unfamiliar. But the rendering was realistic, and with a contemporary unfamiliarity. Tannhauser did not go to a Venusberg, but to a Pleasure City. What was a Pleasure City? A dream, surely, the fancy of a fantastic, voluptuous writer.

He became interested, curious. The story developed with a flavour of strangely twisted sentimentality. Suddenly he did not like it. He liked it less as it proceeded.

He had a revulsion of feeling. These were no pictures, no idealisations, but photographed realities. He wanted no more of the twenty-second century Venusberg. He forgot the part played by the model in nineteenth century art, and gave way to an archaic indignation. He rose, angry and half ashamed at himself for witnessing this thing even in solitude. He pulled forward the apparatus, and with some violence sought for a means of stopping its action. Something snapped. A violet spark stung and convulsed his arm and the thing was still. When he attempted next day to replace these Tannhauser cylinders by another pair, he found the apparatus broken….

He struck out a path oblique to the room and paced to and fro, struggling with intolerable vast impressions. The things he had derived from the cylinders and the things he had seen, conflicted, confused him. It seemed to him the most amazing thing of all that in his thirty years of life he had never tried to shape a picture of these coming times. "We were making the future," he said, "and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!"

"What have they got to, what has been done? How do I come into the midst of it all?" The vastness of street and house he was prepared for, the multitudes of people. But conflicts in the city ways! And the systematised sensuality of a class of rich men!

He thought of Bellamy, the hero of whose Socialistic Utopia had so oddly anticipated this actual experience. But here was no Utopia, no Socialistic state. He had already seen enough to realise that the ancient antithesis of luxury, waste and sensuality on the one hand and abject poverty on the other, still prevailed. He knew enough of the essential factors of life to understand that correlation. And not only were the buildings of the city gigantic and the crowds in the street gigantic, but the voices he had heard in the ways, the uneasiness of Howard, the very atmosphere spoke of gigantic discontent. What country was he in? Still England it seemed, and yet strangely "un-English." His mind glanced at the rest of the world, and saw only an enigmatical veil.

Marshall McLuhan 101: Did the evolution of media cause the dystopia—or only reflect it? – D.R.


  1. It did not instigate it, but did accentuate it, then as media consolidated the conventions of the social setting it was possible for future enclaves of resistance to emerge inciting other cycles. At least this is what happened among sectarians of late antiquity who began to toy with folded letters and then, accidentally, invented the hand held reading device or codex.

  2. Vooks displacing text in novels? I think you’re forgetting that Hollywood movies have already done that. Sure, lots of people still read Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code, but how many more simply just watch the movie version of best-sellers and never bother to read the book? A lot of people would rather veg in front of a movie screen for an hour and a half rather than read the original novel, despite the fact that the novel is almost always better than the movie. We don’t have to wait for the “vook” (I hate that word) for displacement of the written word.

  3. @David
    The Sleeper Awakens may be slow to start (though I don’t recall feeling that particularly), but I felt that the end was rather abrupt. Overall, it was an intriguing read, as you’re discovering for yourself, no doubt. =)

  4. (Updating a comment I made in 2008.) I enjoyed reading The Sleeper Awakes several years ago. One detail of the retro-futuristic Wellsian city described in the novel was especially intriguing. The hero clambers to the top of the metropolis (London) and finds the following remarkable cityscape:

    He saw he had come out upon the roof of the vast city structure which had replaced the miscellaneous houses, streets and open spaces of Victorian London. The place upon which he stood was level, with huge serpentine cables lying athwart it in every direction. The circular wheels of a number of windmills loomed indistinct and gigantic through the darkness and snowfall, and roared with a varying loudness as the fitful wind rose and fell. Some way off an intermittent white light smote up from below, touched the snow eddies with a transient glitter, and made an evanescent spectre in the night; and here and there, low down, some vaguely outlined wind-driven mechanism flickered with livid sparks.

    Wells envisioned a city whose primary source of energy was wind power generated by massive turbines placed on the tops of city buildings. One of the most powerful unions in this world consists of the engineers of the “wind-vanes”. The book describes “Wind-Vane Offices” and a “Wind-Vane police”.

    So Wells was contemplating large-scale renewable wind energy at the turn of the last century. A January 10 article in the UK Guardian says:

    Even if the £100bn wind-power revolution hailed by Brown and his colleagues is a stunning success, it will do nothing to alleviate a formidable short-term squeeze, resulting from the fact that many older electricity plants – both nuclear and coal-fired – are due to be scrapped over the next few years, leaving Britain increasingly dependent on gas power, at the same time as its own reserves in the North Sea are being rapidly run down, so that the gas-fired plants will have to be heavily reliant on imported supplies.

    “We’ve got all the nukes and most of the coal going off the system in the next 10 years,” says Professor Dieter Helm, an expert in the economics of energy at Oxford University.

  5. Wells was complex, and fully aware that this question as to weather the melody was cause or symptom is not easily decided, he was tortured by the potential for social failure , as were many, eg Husserl, but was slow to make judgement, well aware that his own views may be colored. Reflecting on other works, still he believed progress to be the outcome of struggle, but pondered the costs of delays, and did not believe it to be taken for granted, but having to choose, the melody of lost prose was symptomatic . I will close with my favorite quote, from “The Shape of Things To Come” it is that “History is a race between education and catastrophe “

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