the sleeper awakes

I’ve just finished reading When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells. It’s the first story I’ve read by Wells, and I actually probably wouldn’t have read it had it not been a book club pick.

The unfortunate thing is that it was actually the October book, and I missed that meet-up because I had to travel interstate for a funeral (hence last week’s haiku). Knowing I would not be attending the meet-up kind of put the book on the back-burner, but now that I’ve really got to get started on this month’s book, I made an effort to get it finished this week-end (it’s one of the few ways I’m really stubborn — I cannot leave a book half-finished).

I suppose that is the other unfortunate thing: my reading of this book, although it is reasonably short, always felt quite rushed. However, in all honesty, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed When the Sleeper Awakes any more or less had I read it at a more leisurely, no-pressure kind of pace.

I’d like to think I’m reasonably well-read when it comes to sci-fi, even though it is not the genre I gravitate to most. Still, I am familiar with the works of Orwell, Bradbury, Asimov and so forth; and I have much respect and awe for visionary authors who can construct such realistic futuristic worlds, dystopian though they may be. But there was something about When the Sleeper Awakes that just didn’t interest or excite me.

The basic premise is that a man of the 19th Century falls asleep after six consecutive days of insomnia. He then sleeps for over 200 years, and awakes to discover that he owns half the world. It is then up to him to discover the good and bad of the world of the future, and thus decide what to do with his newfound power.

Imagine waking up to a world that is completely different to the one you knew. And not only that — realistically, you wouldn’t know who to trust, whose version of reality to believe. That is the protagonist’s dilemma. In this sense, the premise is very interesting and has a lot of potential, but the way it was written kind of lost me.

Throughout the book, there seemed to be so much superfluous detail, and Wells’ choice of words seemed rather unvaried (words like “continent” and “athwart” recurred regularly throughout, probably standing out even more because of how uncommonly they’re used in any other book/story/text I’ve ever read). And yet, while the narrative was thick with detail, the dialogue was often quite fragmentary — perhaps reflecting the state of mind of the characters, but the technique seemed overused.

But, again, perhaps it was just the mindset and circumstances in which I was reading WTSA. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read sci-fi in a long time, and was missing that element of wonder.

I think I was also often forgetting (particularly at the start) that this book was written over a hundred years ago (first published in 1899). With that in mind, it is quite incredible that Wells could imagine and construct this futuristic world with such vivid detail. I think it’s the same with fantasy — because the world is completely new, there is a need to explain small details so that everything makes sense, and can be imagined by the reader.

But, of course, you have to draw the line somewhere. Where possible, the details and explanations should emerge in a way that does not disrupt the flow of the story. And anything that isn’t relevant to the story, and provide little interest to the reader, should be omitted (like, why did we need to know that medical staff wore purple? It was mentioned a couple of times but did not really affect anything that happened.) 

All this aside, I get that there are bound to be elements that seem unrealistic to someone who is halfway between the 19th Century world Wells lived in and the world he created in WTSA. However, I don’t think the point of sci-fi is to predict the future. The true glory of sci-fi is to get readers wondering “What if…?”

When I reflected on this while reading the book, I wondered what Wells would think of our present world. What would he think of the state of politics and global division? What would he think of the advancement of technology and science? Would he be surprised? Disappointed? Amazed?

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