The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Coming Race (1871)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Coming Race was written by Edward Bulwer Lytton. Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, productive, and influential writer for over forty years. His reputation has unjustly suffered for many decades. The Coming Race is both enjoyable and historically significant as one of the first English science fiction novels.

The nameless American narrator of The Coming Race is invited by an engineer friend to visit a mine somewhere in England. The engineer finds evidence of civilization in a ravine at the bottom of the mine, and the narrator and the engineer decide to explore the ravine. However, during their descent the engineer falls and dies. The narrator pushes on by himself and discovers the Vril-ya, a race of humanoids. The Vril-ya have constructed a peaceful utopia and live in large, well-lit caverns. They have advanced technology, including air boats, android servants, telegraphs, mechanical wings, and powerful weaponry. The Vril-ya are generally peaceful and pacifistic, but there are a few occasions on which they use violence. There are still a few monsters from millennia gone by which lurk in the depths of the Earth, and the children of the Vril-ya hunt them. And when the Vril-ya are threatened by other, expansionist cultures, the Vril-ya destroy those cultures altogether. The Vril-ya take their name from “vril,” an all-powerful form of energy which they use to power their civilization. Vril is a “unity in natural energetic agencies,” an all-purpose, electric-magnetic-galvanic energy which is capable of destroying almost anything but also of healing wounds and curing diseases. Vril is controlled by willpower and channeled through staffs which the Vril-ya carry. The narrator enjoys his time among the Vril-ya, but the daughter of his host falls in love with him, and this endangers the narrator’s life, since the Vril-ya cannot have their community sullied by one of their own marrying a lesser being, as they perceive humans to be. Eventually the narrator is forced to flee back to the surface world.

The Coming Race, though a bestseller on its debut, is much more influential than read in the twenty-first century, no doubt due to Bulwer Lytton’s poor reputation. This is regrettable, since The Coming Race is not only readable but is even enjoyable.

The Coming Race was published only two years before Bulwer Lytton’s death and was one of his last novels. The novels he wrote later in life were generally shorter than the three-decker volumes he wrote as a young man; Bulwer Lytton seemed to have run out of the energy for longer works that he had written earlier in his career. However, his style improved in these later novels, as he adjusted to the expectations of audiences of the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. Although The Coming Race retains the stiffness which is one of Bulwer Lytton’s stylistic flaws, and although the novel has an overly-formal style of dialogue and narration, The Coming Race lacks the ponderousness and torpid quality which are Bulwer Lytton’s primary failings as a writer. Bulwer Lytton spends the majority of the novel describing the Vril-ya’s utopian culture and existence, but The Coming Race still has a good pace and is relatively fast-moving. Bulwer Lytton also creates some nice visual images, so that the reader can easily envision the exotic subterranean world of the Vril-ya. Purely in terms of a reading experience, The Coming Race is one of Bulwer Lytton’s best novels.

The Coming Race is also of good quality. Bulwer Lytton’s world-building is thorough, so that the culture and history of the Vril-ya are described in depth, down to the Vril-ya’s religion, philosophy, and even the etymology of the Vril-ya’s language. Bulwer Lytton also fleshes out the idea of the subterranean world in an interesting way; the reader easily gets the sense that the world beneath the surface of the Earth, in The Coming Race, is far larger than the small part shown in the novel. There are many other races and cultures beneath the surface of the Earth, in The Coming Race, than that of the Vril-ya, and Bulwer Lytton’s hints about them are intriguing and even tantalizing.Of course, Bulwer Lytton was not the first to write fiction about a Hollow Earth. The idea that

the Earth is hollow dates back centuries; as David R. Langford and Everett F. Bleiler wrote,

The concept of the Earth as a hollow, spherical shell with a habitable, internal concave surface accessible through polar openings or caves, or by mechanical bores, has long been a significant motif in sf. The idea's dual origins, from Religion and Pseudoscience, are still potent. Traditionally Hell was sited inside the Earth, a notion that persisted at least until the eighteenth century, when a theologian proposed that Earth's rotation was caused by the damned scrambling to escape from Hell. In pseudoscience the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), to account for magnetic phenomena, suggested in a paper published by the Royal Society in 1692 that Earth (and the other planets) consisted of concentric, nested spheres surrounding a small central sun, with, possibly, openings at the poles.1 

The first two major fictional renditions of the concept appeared in the eighteenth century. In 1720 the French author Simon Tyssot de Patot wrote The Life, Adventures and Trip to Greenland of the Rev. Father Pierre de Mesange (original: La Vie, les Aventures et le Voyage de Groenland du Révérend Père Cordelier Pierre de Mésange), about the discovery of a hidden subterranean kingdom inhabited by the descendants of African colonists and located near the North Pole. In 1741 the Danish poet Ludvig Holberg wrote The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground (original: Nicolaii Klimii iter subterraneum), in which a young Norwegian falls through the shell of the world into the Earth’s hollow interior. But the progenitor of the nineteenth century subgenre of Hollow Earth fiction was John Cleve Symmes (1779-1829), an American soldier who became obsessed with the idea that the Earth was hollow. Symmes’ popularization of the idea of the Hollow Earth led to a number of Hollow Earth stories and novels, most notably Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Coming Race is in this tradition, but Bulwer Lytton’s subterranean world is far more detailed and interesting than any of its predecessors, to the point that one critic called it the “crowning achievement” of the Hollow Earth genre.2 The Hollow Earth theory had peaked England in the 1820s, when it became “something of a vogue in certain learned and literary circles.”3 Bulwer Lytton’s use of the Hollow Earth, so many years after interest in the theory had waned, can be seen as a late efflorescence in the field akin to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer being published years after the Gothic genre had reached its peak and begun its decline.

The Coming Race is a utopian satire. Bulwer Lytton wrote it in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War (1871), when the notion of emancipation for the poor was viewed as a threat by the ruling classes of England. The culture of the Vril-ya is a communist utopia, but it is emotionally sterile and unlikable. Bulwer Lytton extends his satire to include evolution, English claims for cultural superiority, American democracy, and feminism (the Vril-ya are a matriarchy with sexually aggressive women). But the satire is uneven and most of the novel is a straight-faced description of the utopian existence of the Vril-ya. Like most utopian novels The Coming Race spends the majority of its time describing the civilization and philosophy of the Vril-ya, and in so doing slights the novel’s supposed plot. Readers who enjoy long descriptions and explanations of the Vril-ya’s utopia will enjoy those sections of The Coming Race. Readers who are more interested in the novel’s plot will find it relatively weak.

The Coming Race was, in its time, influential, not only on succeeding Hollow Earth novels but also on utopias (and one unofficial sequel; see: The Vril Staff). George Bernard Shaw later acknowledged that his ideas of the “Superman” were influenced by Bulwer Lytton’s writing, and when Samuel Butler’s famous utopian novel Erewhon (1872) was first published it was thought to be Bulwer Lytton’s own sequel to The Coming Race. The Coming Race is full of ideas and concepts which would repeatedly appear in later science fiction and in reality, including a version of atomic energy (in the vril), android servants, anti-gravity flight, nuclear war, and the future evolution of the human body, all of which help produce the Vril-ya’s utopia.

But the preferred inscribed narrative of The Coming Race is that the Vril-ya’s utopia is a bad thing. Bulwer Lytton had the narrator of The Coming Race write the introduction to Bulwer Lytton’s The Parisians (1872) and praise the individualistic qualities of the French and the glories of Paris when compared to the Vril-ya. Most critics have interpreted The Coming Race as

an anti-Utopian story, in which Bulwer Lytton channeled his anxieties about Darwinism, democracy, female emancipation, science and technology, political developments in France and creeping socialism at home. He argued that the perfect society achieved by the Vril-ya people (and aimed for by the progressives of Bulwer Lytton’s own time) would be “extremely dull,” “inhibit all greatness” and “would be deadly to us, not from its vices but its virtues.”4

The Coming Race ends on an interesting note:

¼the more I think of a people calmly developing, in regions excluded from our sight and deemed uninhabitable by our sages, powers surpassing our most disciplined modes of force, and virtues to which our life, social and political, becomes antagonistic in proportion as our civilization advances—the more devoutly I pray that ages may yet elapse before there emerge into sunlight our inevitable destroyers. Being, however, frankly told by my physician that I am afflicted by a complaint which, thought it gives little pain and no perceptible notice of its encroachments, may at any moment be fatal, I have thought it my duty to my fellow-men to place on record these forewarnings of The Coming Race.5 

In a letter to his editor Bulwer Lytton made explicit the implication of this passage. Explaining this passage, and the general theme of the book, he wrote (and later repeated in Kenelm Chillingly [1873]),

¼the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself of our old one, and that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.6 

This misperception of Darwin’s theories was a common one in the post-Origin of Species decades, and might be said to be a central or even primary cause of the Fin-de-Siècle Unease about the future of England’s place in the world, and of the Yellow Peril narrative of vast numbers of Asians invading and overwhelming Europe and/or America and/or Great Britain. (The primum mobile of the Victorian fears of the Yellow Peril was racism, but the fears that another “race” would invade and overwhelm England also fed into the formation of that aspect of the Yellow Peril myth). Essentially, what the English feared was that another race would invade and conquer or colonize them the same way that the English and the other Europeans had invaded and conquered or colonized so much of the rest of the world—that some other race would then treat the English the way the English had treated the rest of the world. The English rarely articulated this fear in those terms—that is, they expressed a fear of being invaded and conquered/colonized, but they could not admit, to themselves or the world, that the colonizing missions of the English and other European powers was motivated by anything less than noble ideas and that the results were anything less than civilizing and edifying for the conquered and colonized. But on some level, however rarely spoken of, English government figures and thought leaders and military men were aware of the fact that, in conquering and colonizing the world, they were only proving that might makes right, and that it was quite possible that some coming nation or race might prove the same thing at the English’s expense. This is one reason why The Coming Race struck such a nerve in England on publication: it expressed fears that most influential Englishmen would not voice or articulate even to themselves. Worse, The Coming Race did so fictionally, but did not disprove the theory, but instead supported it. The English were used to seeing their fears projected into fiction, where they could be safely handled and disposed of—witness the plots of most of the post-War of the Worlds rip-offs and unauthorized sequels, like Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Having a popular and influential author—and Bulwer Lytton was still both in 1871—refuse to take part in this ritual of projection and disposal was unnerving to English readers.7 

One aspect of The Coming Race that would only become significant in retrospect was the novel’s status as a science fiction novel. There were sf novels before The Coming Race, and the concept of science fiction as a separate genre of literature was firm in the minds of writers, critics, reviewers, and advertisers by 1871, though it went under terms like “scientific romance,” “scientific fiction,” “romance of science,” and “imaginative fiction.” But in a certain sense The Coming Race—and “The Battle of Dorking,” which were both released on May 1, 1871, and Samuel Butler’s Erehwon (1872), which was turned in to the publishers on May 1, 1871—were the beginning of the literary genre of science fiction in England.8 

Most writers and readers trace the invention of science fiction to Frankenstein, though this is an incorrect notion that slights numerous earlier authors and works (see: Frankenstein). But what The Coming Race. “The Battle of Dorking,” and Erewhon cumulatively did, through their sales and publicity, was to boost “science fiction from being an obscure sub-genre into something publishers made a point of selling.”9 The Coming Race was immediately influential: the number of science fiction novels published after 1871 surged, with only six being published in 1870 but seventeen being published in 1873, and a third of all science fiction published 1875-1880 was Lost Race (see: The Lost Race Story) like The Coming Race; authors like Edward Page Mitchell, who would go on to become a popular science fiction writer, were overtly influenced by Bulwer Lytton and The Coming Race; science fiction went from something predominantly European-more works of science fiction were produced in France from 1860-April 30, 1871 than in the United States and the United Kingdom combined-to something dominated by Anglophones, both writers and audience; Bulwer Lytton, as one of the most esteemed novelists of the period, leant science fiction a respectability among critics it had not previously possessed; and

it is no coincidence that the phrase "scientific fiction" as a descriptor for the genre of science fiction began appearing in the American and British press with a much greater frequency after May Day, 1871, or that publishers like the Tinsley Brothers (at the time best-known for publishing Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Thomas Hardy) suddenly began publishing science fiction novels after May Day, or that magazines like Scribner's Monthly (in the United States) and Belgravia (in the United Kingdom) suddenly began publishing science fiction stories after May Day.10 

The Coming Race was not only a landmark work of science fiction, it addressed certain issues which were central to the Victorian experience. The rapid rate of technological change during the nineteenth century were of great concern to the Victorians, and added to their Fin-de-Siècle Unease. Electricity was perhaps the central concern; over the first half of the century it had been viewed in supernatural or metaphysical terms, as in Auriol, or the Elixir of Life (1850) by William Harrison Ainsworth. Bulwer Lytton, however,

interrogates the possibilities of electricity further and steps away from the medievalist supernaturalism of Ainsworth’s response, as well as that of his own earlier novels. In The Coming Race electricity plays a significant role and one that interacted with the whole series of new technologies beginning to emerge in the second half of the century, such as the electric telegraph (1858), the telephone (1876), the light bulb (1879), the electric train (1879), the car (1885) and the radio (1895). The innovations depicted in the novel indicate how substantially electricity had, by the beginning of the 1870s, already transformed perceptions of man’s potential for communication and movement...The Coming Race was unashamedly sensationalist but¼the novel also envisages the repercussions of electricity, technology and their effects upon society and human nature.11 

The Coming Race, then, stands as a work of solid entertainment and as a work of historical importance. Readers are recommended to search it out.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Coming Race. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2008.



1 Everett F. Bleiler and David R. Langford, “Hollow Earth,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Feb. 11, 2019,

2 Peter Sinnema, “Introduction,” in Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Coming Race (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2008), 9.

3 Sinnema, “Introduction,” 9.

4 David Huckvale, A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre: Crime, Magic and Power in the Novels of Edward Bulwer Lytton (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 215.

5 Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Coming Race (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1871), 292.

6 Edward Bulwer Lytton to John Forster, letter, qtd in I.F. Clarke, The Pattern of Expectation, 1644-2001 (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 143.

7 Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technologies (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University, 2016) has a good chapter on the implications of racism and racial retribution in The Coming Race.

8 Darko Suvin, “Victorian Science Fiction, 1871-85: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-Genre,” Science Fiction Studies 10, no.2 (Jul 1983), 148-169.

9 Jess Nevins, “May Day, 1871: The Day ‘Science Fiction’ Was Invented,”, accessed Feb. 11, 2019,

10 Nevins, “May Day, 1871.”

11 Stella Pratt-Smith, Transformations of Electricity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 26-27.

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