Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lost Worlds & Races

E.F. Bleiler writes, in Science Fiction Writers (p. 518) that the lost-race subgenre is "the most rigidly formularized sequence of storemes in science fiction, and all too often subliterate." He thinks highly only of the best work of Haggard, it seems, and A. Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage.


Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (1870). The Coming Race (original title), also reprinted as Vril: The Power of the Coming Race, is a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first published in 1871. The novel is an early example of science fiction. However, many early readers believed that its account of a superior subterranean master race and the energy-form called Vril was accurate, to the extent that some theosophists accepted the book as truth. Furthermore, since 1960 there has been a conspiracy theory about a secret Vril Society.

The novel centres on a young, independently wealthy traveler (the narrator), who accidentally finds his way into a subterranean world occupied by beings who seem to resemble angels, who call themselves Vril-ya. The hero soon discovers that they are descendants of an antediluvian civilization who live in networks of subterranean caverns linked by tunnels. There they live in their technologically supported Utopia, chief among their tools being the "all-permeating fluid" called "Vril", a latent source of energy which his spiritually elevated hosts are able to master through training of their will, to a degree which depends upon their hereditary constitution, giving them access to an extraordinary force that can be controlled at will. The powers of the will include the ability to heal, change, and destroy beings and things—the destructive powers in particular are awesomely powerful, allowing a few young Vril-ya children to wipe out entire cities if necessary. The narrator suggests that in time, the Vril-ya will run out of habitable spaces underground and will start claiming the surface of the earth, destroying mankind in the process, if necessary.

The uses of Vril in the novel amongst the Vril-ya vary from an agent of destruction to a healing substance. According to Zee, the daughter of the narrator's host, Vril can be changed into the mightiest agency over all types of matter, both animate and inanimate. It can destroy like lightning or replenish life, heal, or cure. It is used to rend ways through solid matter. Its light is said to be steadier, softer and healthier than that from any flammable material. It can also be used as a power source for animating mechanisms. Vril can be harnessed by use of the Vril staff or mental concentration.

A Vril staff is an object in the shape of a wand or a staff which is used as a channel for Vril. The narrator describes it as hollow with 'stops', 'keys', or 'springs' in which Vril can be altered, modified or directed to either destroy or heal. The staff is about the size of a walking stick but can be lengthened or shortened according to the user's preferences. The appearance and function of the Vril staff differs according to gender, age, etc. Some staffs are more potent for destruction, others for healing. The staffs of children are said to be much simpler than those of sages; in those of wives and mothers the destructive part is removed while the healing aspects are emphasized. The destructive force is so great that the fire lodged in the hollow of a rod directed by the hand of a child could cleave the strongest fortress or cleave its burning way from the van to the rear of an embattled host. It is also said that if army met army and both had command of the vril-force, both sides would be annihilated.

Interestingly, the Vril-ya also use Vril to take baths: It is their custom also, at stated but rare periods, perhaps four times a-year when in health, to use a bath charged with vril. They consider that this fluid, sparingly used, is a great sustainer of life; but used in excess, when in the normal state of health, rather tends to reaction and exhausted vitality. For nearly all their diseases, however, they resort to it as the chief assistant to nature in throwing off the complaint.

Bulwer-Lytton makes many references to the scientists of his time.

In Chapter VII, Vril is defined as what Michael Faraday had been experimenting with:

Therewith Zee began to enter into an explanation of which I understood very little, for there is no word in any language I know which is an exact synonym for vril. I should call it electricity, except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, &c. These people consider that in vril they have arrived at the unity in natural energic agencies, which has been conjectured by many philosophers above ground, and which Faraday thus intimates under the more cautious term of correlation:--[2]

Faraday is then quoted:

"I have long held an opinion," says that illustrious experimentalist, "almost amounting to a conviction, in common, I believe, with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or, in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent, that they are convertible, as it were, into one another, and possess equivalents of power in their action."[2]

Again in ChapterXVI, we are told that Faraday would understand the "science" of Vril:

Though I had a secret persuasion that whatever the real effects of vril upon matter Mr. Faraday could have proved her a very shallow philosopher as to its extent or its causes, I had no doubt that Zee could have brained all the Fellows of the Royal Society, one after the other, with a blow of her fist. Every sensible man knows that it is useless to argue with any ordinary female upon matters he comprehends; but to argue with a Gy seven feet high upon the mysteries of vril,--as well argue in a desert, and with a simoom! [3]

Bulwer-Lytton refers to the then current, but now disproved, theory of universal luminiferous aether, which it was thought was required to allow the propagation of wave energy. The book goes on to say in Chapter XI:

"She described a subtle and life-giving medium called Lai, which I suspect to be identical with the ethereal oxygen of Dr. Lewins, wherein work all the correlative forces united under the name of Vril; and contended that wherever this medium could be expanded, as it agencies of Vril to have ample play, a temperature congenial to the highest forms of life could be secured." [4]

Bulwer-Lytton also quotes zoologist Louis Agassiz at length in Chapter XIV a part of an examination of the religious beliefs of the Vril-ya. [5]Agassiz is remembered today as the first scientist to propose that there had been an Ice Age. However, at the time of the book's writing he was well known as a biologist opposed to Darwin's theory of evolution[6] and an advocate of "scientific" justifications for racism.[7]

In chapter XV Bulwer-Lytton uses ideas from the geologist Charles Lyell to introduce an examination of the phrenology of the Vril-ya. [8] Where Lyell is still considered an important contributor to the development of geology, phrenology is now considered a discredited science. It claimed to be able to understanding human personality by examining the shape of the skull.

Lyell was a friend of Darwin's and the story Zee later tells of how the ancestors of Vril-ya in their ignorant past had a major debate over whether they descended from frogs or did frogs descend from them is clearly meant to be a parody of the very heated debate over Darwinism taking place in Bulwer-Lytton's time.[9] However, there seems to be at least some evidence that Bulwer-Lytton didn't know the difference between Darwinism and the already discredited Lamarckism. He explains that the palm nerve necessary to control Vril was developed by generations of exercising this nerve.

"It has been slowly developed in the course of generations, commencing in the early achievements, and increasing with the continuous exercise, of the vril power; therefore, in the course of one or two thousand years, such a nerve may possibly be engendered in those higher beings of your race, who devote themselves to that paramount science through which is attained command over all the subtler forces of nature permeated by vril" [10]

This book mentions fountains of Naphtha at several points and describes in chapter XXIII:

In the centre of the floor were a cistern and a fountain of that liquid light which I have presumed to be naphtha. It was luminous and of a roseate hue; it sufficed without lamps to light up the room with a subdued radiance. All around the fountain was carpeted with a soft deep lichen, not green (I have never seen that colour in the vegetation of this country), but a quiet brown,......[11]

Naphtha refers family of a petroleum distillates which burns with about the same heat and light as gasoline, kerosene, or diesel. They are poisonous to drink, inhale the fumes, or to have contact the skin. They have dangerous explosive vapors.

According to the book:

"I arrived at the conviction that this people—though originally not only of our human race, but, as seems to me clear by the roots of their language, descended from the same ancestors as the great Aryan family, from which in varied streams has flowed the dominant civilization of the world; and having, according to their myths and their history, passed through phases of society familiar to ourselves,--had yet now developed into a distinct species with which it was impossible that any community in the upper world could amalgamate: And that if they ever emerged from these nether recesses into the light of day, they would, according to their own traditional persuasions of their ultimate destiny, destroy and replace our existent varieties of man."[12]

In essence, the narrator believes the language of the Vril-ya to be of the same origin as Aryan languages. The passage does not outright affirm the narrator's belief that there is also an ethnic connection between the Vril-ya and the Aryans. In fact, subsequent passages have Zee, a female Vril-ya scientist, explain to the narrator that the Vril-ya are descended from frogs.[13]

Many readers today find the passage quoted above to be thinly veiled admiration for the Vril-ya as Aryan Supermen. However, the modern connotations of these terms are heavily influenced by Nazi and White Supremacist propaganda developed and produced decades after the writing and initial publication of this book.[citation needed]

Therefore, while it is easy to see how fanatical readers were able to, in part, derive their Nazi and Supremacist beliefs and doctrines from this book, it is also important to note that The Coming Race says no more than it does say, and says even that as a work of fiction.

The legend has received a further layer of elaboration from recent authors like Raymond Bernard who conflate Bulwer-Lytton's "Coming Race" with speculations about interior civilizations which live on the inside of the Hollow Earth. (The concept of a hollow earth was first advanced by Sir Edmund Halley at the end of the seventeenth century.) By contrast, Bulwer-Lytton's subterranean people dwelt in caverns within the crust of a solid earth. The world of the Vril-ya is always described as being underground tunnels, artificially lit (using Vril). The book contains no suggestion of a hollow earth; theories of this kind are only found in subsequent works.

he book was quite popular in the late 19th century, and for a time the word "Vril" came to be associated with "life-giving elixirs".[citation needed]

Some readers believe the book is non-fiction, and "Vril" has become associated with theories about Nazi-piloted Flugscheiben ("Flight Discs"), Vril-powered KSK (Kraftstrahlkanone, "force-ray cannon" — transmission rods that produce potent energy rays), Jesuit "spiritual exercises", and Atlanteans to name a few.[citation needed]

The concept of the Vril was given new impetus by the French author Louis Jacolliot (1837-1890), who at one time was the French Consul in Calcutta. In Les Fils de Dieu (1873) and in Les Traditions indo-européennes (1876), Jacolliot claims that he encountered Vril among the Jains in Mysore and Gujerat.[14]

The writings of these two authors, and Bulwer-Lytton's occult background, convinced some commentators that the fictionalised Vril was based on a real magical force. Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, endorsed this view in her book Isis Unveiled (1877) and again in The Secret Doctrine (1888). In Jacolliot and Blavatsky, the Vril power and its attainment by a superhuman elite are worked into a mystical doctrine of race. However, the character of the subterranean people was transformed. Instead of potential conquerors, they were benevolent (if mysterious) spiritual guides, while Blavatsky's theory of racial evolution explicitly repudiated the idea of superior and inferior races.

When the theosophist William Scott-Elliot describes life in Atlantis in The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria (first published 1896), the aircraft of the Atlanteans are propelled by vril-force.[15] Obviously he did not regard that description as fiction, and his books are still published by the Theosophical Society.

* The still-popular English drink Bovril takes its name from the combination of the words "Bovine" and "Vril".

* The story may have inspired Nikola Tesla when he invented remote control. While Tesla denied this, biographer Marc J. Seifer says the inventor probably knew the story given Bulwer-Lytton's popularity at the time.

* The book is mentioned in the song by David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things": "Look out at your children / See their faces in golden rays / Don't kid yourself they belong to you / They're the start of the coming race".


* Fenton Ash, The Radium Seekers: Or, the Wonderful Black Nugget (Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons: London, 1905). See Fenton Ash entry.

* Fenton Ash, By Airship to Ophir (1911), set in Africa.


* Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Return of Tarzan (Chicago: McClurg, 1915). The first sequel to Tarzan of the Apes (1914; All-Story, October 1912). See Burroughs entry.

* Fenton Ash, The Black Opal (1915), set in the Sargasso sea.

* Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Warlord of Mars (Chicago: McClurg, 1918; All-Story, December 1913-March 1914). See Burroughs entry.

* A. Merritt, "The People of the Pit" (All-Story, January 5, 1918). (Maybe?) See Merritt entry.

* Pierre Benoit, L'Atlantide (Michel Pub. Co., Paris, 1919). Translated as The Queen of Atlantis. A Haggard type of fantastic adventure. Filmed in 1929 (French, silent), 1933 (German), 1948 (US, as Siren of Atlantis).

* Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land That Time Forgot (Chicago: McClurg, 1924; composed of "The Land That Time Forgot," Blue Book, August 1918; "The People That Time Forgot," Blue Book, October 1918; and "Out of Time's Abyss," Blue Book, December 1918). See Burroughs entry.

* A. Merritt, "The Conquest of the Moon Pool" (All-Story, February 14 - March 29, 1919).

* The Metal Monster (Argosy All-Story, August 7 - September 25, 1920). See Merritt entry.

* Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan the Terrible (Chicago: McClurg, 1921). See Burroughs entry.

* At the Earth's Core (Chicago: McClurg, 1922; All-Story, April 4-25, 1914). See Burroughs entry.


* Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Ant Men (Chicago: McClurg, 1924). See Burroughs entry.

* A. Merritt, "The Face in the Abyss" (Argosy All-Story, September 8, 1923). Combined, with its sequel, "The Snake Mother" (Argosy All-Story, October 25-December 6, 1930) into The Face in the Abyss (1931). See Merritt entry.

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