Humans, the ‘Other’ and Post-Human Ideas in The Coming Race

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s narrator in The Coming Race (1871) comes into contact with another highly developed species of humanoids calling themselves the Vril-ya after descending into the deeper levels of a mine. His first description of the Vril-ya is a striking one:

It reminded me of symbolical images of Genius or Demon that are seen on Etruscan vases or limned on the walls of Eastern selpuchres – images that borrow the outlines of man, and are yet of another race. [Bulwer-Lytton, 1871: 15]

This first assessment sets the ground for further encounters he has with the Vril-ya. While the choice of pronoun does not stick – he soon comes to referring to them by those pronouns his language reserves for humans – what does, is that he and his hosts are both confronted with a species of humanoid formerly unknown to them. In the course of forming an acquaintance whith the Vril-ya the narrator soon feels humiliated and in some cases even frightened by their apparent superiority. He learns that they are technologically advanced, having even mastered the use of automatons [Bulwer-Lytton, 1871: 18] and even flight [Bulwer-Lytton, 1871: 25] among other things. One the other hand, soon after he was able to tell them more about his own origins and the way of his people, he is asked to stay silent about these, as he was not able to “make a favourable impression” [Bulwer-Lytton, 1871: 42] From that point onwards, the exchange becomes rather one-sided, with the narrator as the student learning more and more about his hosts. Throughout his descriptions he tends to use his own kind as a frame of reference. By doing so, he treats the Vril-ya as some kind of ‘other’, yet one superior in many ways to himself. All the while, seemingly forgetting, that among the subjects of his observation it is not them, but rather him qualifying as the ‘other’.

The observation and description of an ‘other’ is a common theme among utopian fiction. Thomas Morus’ Utopia works along the same lines: A returned traveller describing an ideal society they encountered. This mode of narrative allows the author to comment on his own society and its outlook without direct adress. This is something also to be found in Bulwer-Lytton’s narrative: One important topic within The Coming Race is the Vril-ya’s mastery of a power source they refer to as vril. The discovery and subsequent utilisation of vril had such a huge impact on their lifestyla and society over all, that they make a very clear distinction between themselves as Vril-ya, the Civilised Nations and their forefathers, the Ana or Barbarians. Therefore the implications of technology on a species and also resulting implications for the individual and society overall are central to the narrative as a whole. As these are made a subject of discussion they also can be seen as a comment on Bulwer-Lytton’s own reality of life and the technology he saw slowly emerge: Electricity – something the narrator himself uses as an analogy for vril [Bulwer-Lytton, 1871: 44] and therefore practically invites the reader to see the past changes within Vril-ya society as possibility of humanity’s future following the mastery of electricity. In light of this explicit thematisation of emerging technologies within the narrative it becomes easy to see that early posthuman ideas are expressed in The Coming Race – whose title alone gives us a hint that it is not the history and past of a race which it is concerned with but rather one’s future. 

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Coming Race. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1871.

Leave a Reply

1 Comment on "Humans, the ‘Other’ and Post-Human Ideas in The Coming Race"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Leon Human
Hi Lara. I enjoyed your take on the thematisation of technology and the narrative as about humanity’s future rather than the Vril-ya’s past. The narrator’s original description of the Vril-ya is indeed striking, and perhaps the first instance of ‘othering’ in the novel within the history and geography of the human race itself. The Etruscan’s were known for their funerary statues, and the ‘Oriental’ is also identified via death images. So, already within the Occidental past, the Etruscans are seen as dealing only in the ‘outlines of man’, without the normative Victorian content of the author. And more naturally so… Read more »