Review by: KEN KORCZAK
It was a dark and stormy night …
It’s perhaps the most infamous opening phrase for a novel, made an object of scorn by sniffing literary snobs who have decided this line is the, “archetypal example of florid, melodramatic fiction writing style.” A Writer’s Digest article called it, “the poster child for bad story starters.”
It rolled off the pen of British writer EDWARD BULWER-LYTTON to start his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. I might also mention that Bulwer-Lytton is credited with originating numerous eloquent phrases, such as, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and, “the almighty dollar.”
This latter phrase comes from the novel I am reviewing today, THE COMING RACE, which Bulwer-Lytton first published anonymously in 1871. This book came out near the end of his literary career and life – Edward Bulwer-Lytton died in 1873.
The Coming Race is a peculiar work of fiction, but one might argue the book has gone on to become the most influential of Bulwer-Lytton’s more than 30 novels. That influence is driven by its central fictional invention, a mystical force or power called “Vril.”
This concept of Vril was seized upon by certain esoteric and metaphysical groups that were emerging in the late 19th Century. Subsequently, the fascination with Vril was revived years later — (supposedly – read on) — by other groups in post-World War I Europe, especially those involved in in the Nazi pseudoscience movements that purportedly played a role in the rise of Adolph Hitler.
Furthermore, Vril is at the heart of one of the most persistent veins in what has become a virtual genre within UFO literature and ufology proper – those involving stories surrounding Nazi flying saucer technology powered by Vril. There is even a British brand of meat paste which leverages the concept of Vril. BOVRIL is a combination of the words “bovine” and “Vril.”
Yes, all this from an unremarkable speculative novel cobbled together by an aging writer whose literary heyday had long since come and gone by 1871. So, what’s the book about?
The Coming Race is a novel with almost no plot. The viewpoint character is a bland, unnamed “any man” used only to serve as a narrator. Bulwer-Lytton makes no attempt to make this character come alive with description or background story that would make him a memorable fictional hero.
It’s barely fiction or a novel at all. Rather, the narrative serves a vehicle for Bulwer-Lytton to envision and describe a hidden race of people who live in a Utopian society and to ruminate about what such a society might be like – and perhaps whether Utopia is such a desirable way to live after all.
The hidden society dwells within vast underground caverns where sunlight is unknown. They have no knowledge of the outside world with its billions of people and animals thriving on the surface. The hero of the story stumbled upon the subterranean civilization by accident while exploring a mining operation.
The inner-earth people call themselves the Vril-ya. They take their name from the fantastic energy that has enabled them to master their underground realm. It provides them with unlimited, pollution free power. With Vril, they can light up their entire subterranean environment with lovely angelic light. Vril can also be used in an infinite number of applications, from powering fantastic robotic machinery that does all the grunt work, to curing disease and, of course, serves as the ultimate weapon.
In a kind of technological determinism, Vril has allowed the Vril-ya to rid their society of all strife, economic inequality and class division. Greed and war are unknown. Material want is nonexistent. That’s because every citizen of the Vril Society has equal access and full command of Vril. With Vril, every individual can easily have everything they want so there is no need for struggle – and no motivation to act aggressively toward others to take what they have.
Bulwer-Lytton spends chapter after chapter describing all aspects of Vril-ya society, much the way an anthropologist might write a nonfiction account of an indigenous people living in a remote corner of the planet. The narration is often mind-numbingly dry – as is the long chapter in which Bulwer-Lytton describes the Vril-ya language, complete with a grammatical analysis parsing the fine points of usage, including base forms, causative verbs, demonstrative pronouns … and on and on.
The narrator engages in lofty discussions with the Vril-ya elite on various aspects of social theory, religion and philosophy. There are some anemic attempts to insert an element of cleverness. For example, Bulwer-Lytton flips the role of the sexes making Vril-ya women the dominant sex in both physical prowess and command of sexual relationship issues. But all this is always carefully couched in a context of everyone and every aspect of Vril-ya culture having achieved a perfect universal equality.
So, reading this from my vantage point of 150 years later, The Coming Race seems an unremarkable, exceedingly bland exercise in the long tradition of a special genre of fiction known as Utopian literature – except that the central concept of Vril proved to have an uncanny captivating effect on certain segments of society that were emerging in the late 1800s.
Among the most significant of these was Theosophy, an esoteric religious movement founded by the Russian-born mystic Madam Blavatsky. While Blavatsky accepted The Coming Race nominally as a work of fiction, she was convinced that Vril was something that was real. She and others came to believe that Bulwer-Lytton wittingly or unwittingly had described an ancient universal force that has always been the birthright of the human race. She believed the possession of this power was latent in all people, but that knowledge of it had somehow become lost, forgotten or hidden over past centuries.
It became a widespread belief that Bulwer-Lytton was a member of some mega-secret occult society from which he had gained special, “insider” knowledge. That’s mostly false – we know this because he vehemently said so – in writing.
It’s true that he was well-known to be a member of the ROSICRUCIAN order, a group based around “esoteric truths if the ancient past.” But the Rosicrucians are largely a known quantity. Their teachings, while esoteric, mystical and arcane, are not a deep source of mystery. Anyone can join the Rosicrucians, study their knowledge and precepts as laid out in the Rosicrucian Manifestos. I am not a Rosicrucian, but I have a close friend who is a long-time member and very high up in the organization today. He gave me extraordinary access to the inner workings of this organization.
Based on my own study of the Rosicrucian Manifestos – and I have had read them all — it is easy to see how Bulwer-Lytton could have extracted the concept of Vril from this voluminous body of ancient teachings.
But no matter. Once Vril was embraced by the Theosophists and other mystics and writers, the “Vril Genie” was out of the bottle. The concept of Vril crept osmosis-like throughout various segments of society. Vril lived on to evolve a life and legacy of its own – much of it based on misinformation, newly created myths and poorly conceived conspiracy theories. With the advent of the Internet, Vril truly found the nutrient-rich, fertile environment and nuclear grow-juice it needed to blossom – or metastasize – into a full-blown, unstoppable modern mythology.
Just log onto YouTube today and search on Vril and you’ll be taken to hundreds of videos connecting Vril with Nazi’s and UFOs. You’ll find copious information on “The Vril Society” – which almost certainly never existed – and even scads of information about a woman said to be the founder of the Vril movement. That woman is identified as MARIA ORSIC. She is said to be a Vienna-born, ethnically Croatian medium who became a German national and then somehow tapped into Vril. She used it to make contact with aliens from a solar system surrounding the star Aldebaran, a red giant and brightest star in the Constellation Taurus. The Aldebaran aliens, in turn, were able to channel information through the mediumship of Maria Orsic that gave the Nazi’s instructions on how to build flying saucers.
Pictures of Maria Orsic are also widely circulated. She’s a stunningly beautiful woman of classic Nordic or Aryan features. But these images are clearly not real photographs. At best, they are doctored photos of a model enhanced to make her look like a perfect specimen from an ancient, forgotten race such as Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya.
The kicker is that we actually know the true origin of Maria Orsic. She is little more than a fictional character created in a book written by two Frenchmen, Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels. The book is titled The Morning of the Magicians, published in 1960. These writers are also responsible for inventing the myth of the Vril Society, which was supposedly an inner circle group within the Thule Society. (By the way, the Thule Society was a real, Nazi-era group).
Are you following all this? If you’re not, don’t worry about it. I’m crunching a gigantic amount of information here into just a few paragraphs. The point is, I find it remarkable how Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s entirely average yarn about an imagined Utopian race living beneath the surface of the earth became the seed for an entire school of conspiracy theory that has now claimed a major position in the world of ufology.
But there is one more factor to consider—and this gets back to Madam Blavatsky – who was probably right when she intuitively perceived the way Bulwer-Lytton framed the idea of Vril was inspired by a genuine ancient truth.
The uncanny appeal of Vril may have its roots in that it represents and archetypal-charged reality – and the collective unconscious mind of humanity knows that Vril truly does exist. The concept keeps re-emerging in our stories, myths and legends again and again. Consider “The Force” in Star Wars. Would this series of mediocre “science fiction lite” space opera films have resonated with the public in such a massive way without the underpinning plot device of “The Force?” Not likely.
From ancient Hindu tradition we find something called PRANA. This is defined as the “life force” or the “vital principle” that “underlies all reality. The Chinese, wholly independent of Hinduism, put forward the concept of QI which is virtually indistinguishable from prana.
Even mainstream material science is in the game. The Holy Grail of physics today is unlocking the secrets that will finally give us access to the ubiquitous, unlimited, pollution free power of ZERO POINT ENERGY – and what is zero-point energy, if not Vril?
So, in the end, let’s save a measure of respect for Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He’s become the unfortunate butt of jokes today thanks to “It was a dark and stormy night …” But at the height of his literary power he produced books of extraordinary value and meaning. For example, I consider his The Last Days of Pompeii to be a work on par with, say, a Gore Vidal or James Michener.
He was an intellectual and excellent scholar who published his first book at age 15. From his alma matter, Trinity Hall, he received the prestigious Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English verse. He was also a gifted statesman and served as an MP in the Whig party for a decade. He was chosen as Secretary of State for the Colonies, one of the most powerful positions in 19th Century British government.
He was a self-made millionaire after being cut off from his inheritance because he married for love, a beautiful Irish woman, over the objection of his mother. Statesman, scholar, writer, innovative thinker — Lord Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton –- the scion of Vril.
PLEASE CHECK OUT MY REVIEWS OF OTHER BOOKS, LINKED BELOW:
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
All NEW: KEN’S BOOK REVIEW SITE ON FACEBOOK: REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING