Magazine article The American Conservative

The First Dystopia: Science Fiction Begins with Bulwer-Lytton's Attack on Egalitarianism

Magazine article The American Conservative

The First Dystopia: Science Fiction Begins with Bulwer-Lytton's Attack on Egalitarianism

Article excerpt

Science fiction has flooded television and Hollywood in recent decades. Our pop culture has been completely saturated by it--and it has often played a key role in our cultural and political commentary. Films and novels such as Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games touch upon issues ranging from the War on Terror to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Yet while left-leaning science-fiction writers and directors tend to be explicit in their political allegiances, we rarely see a display of right-wing credentials in the genre. This may be understandable, given the entrenched liberal culture of Hollywood. But considering the roots of science fiction, such silence is unfortunate. After all, one of science fiction's founding fathers was a 19th-century conservative named Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

An eminent novelist, playwright, poet, and politician in Victorian Britain, Bulwer-Lytton has been largely neglected since his death in 1873. People remember the phrases he coined--such as "it was a dark and stormy night" or "the pen is mightier than the sword"--but not the man himself. His single contribution to the science-fiction genre, The Coming Race, came in the twilight of his life after an already long and prestigious career. But then, there really was no "science-fiction genre" when The Coming Race appeared, which is what makes this book remarkable--it prefigures many of the themes that have since come to define a rather large part of our popular culture.

In the 1830s, early in his career, Bulwer-Lytton was a Radical novelist and dandy of aristocratic birth, prone to bouts of melancholia, with a strong penchant for Byron. Along with his friend Benjamin Disraeli, also a Radical novelist at the time, Bulwer-Lytton enjoyed the glamour and gossip of London high society. He wrote several novels about English society--from Pelham, which recounted the life of a society dandy and aspiring politician, to the criminal underbelly portrayed in his Newgate novels, which recounted the adventures of highwaymen and murderers. This eye for Britain's social and cultural life was a defining feature of Bulwer-Lytton's style and work.

Following the death of his mother in 1843, Bulwer-Lytton inherited the family title and estate. It gave him a new purpose and responsibility: the dandy of the 1830s was gone. By the 1840s, he had become a moderate Whig and a serious Victorian gentleman. Bulwer-Lytton was a committed protectionist, however, and grew increasingly disillusioned with his fellow Whigs. He eventually joined the Conservative Party in 1852, a defection facilitated by his friendship with Disraeli. This was a counterintuitive move for a rising star in Parliament: for the next two decades, the Conservatives would languish in opposition, with only brief attempts at governing. During these years, Bulwer-Lytton was Disraeli's ally in the House of Commons.

By 1871, Bulwer-Lytton was an aged, deaf, and increasingly sick man. Years of political opposition had prevented him from ascending to the heights of political office. The world was also a very different place: as a young man Bulwer-Lytton had fought tooth and nail to prevent the rise of free trade and the growth of democracy, both of which he saw as destructive forces and vehicles for class warfare. But both had come to pass with repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the Second Reform Act in 1867. Britain was no longer an exclusively agricultural, Anglican, and hierarchical society, but rather an increasingly industrialized, pluralistic, and democratic one.

It would have been easy for Bulwer-Lytton to resign himself to the fact that the political battles which had defined so much of his life were lost. Instead he published The Coming Race, anonymously, in 1871. The novel addressed new dangers he feared would await Britain through the allegorical story of a subterranean master race called the Vril-ya, whose strange abilities were made possible by the immense power of an energy source called Vril. …

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