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Sleeper Awakes

Entry updated 20 September 2020. Tagged: Theme.

As the nineteenth century progressed and the planet became more and more thoroughly explored, authors of Utopias and Dystopias began to abandon present-day Lost Worlds and Islands as venues for their ideal societies, and instead to locate their speculations in the future, perhaps hundreds of years hence. Almost always these speculations were framed by prologues (and sometimes epilogues) set at the time the novel was written; this frame served to introduce the protagonist who was to travel into the future and act the role of inquisitive visitor to the new world. The route he (the protagonist was almost always male) generally took seems in retrospect an odd one. Though Time Machines were available to fiction writers before the end of the century, they were rarely used, either by utopian/dystopian speculators or by tellers of tales. Even H G Wells, who conceived perhaps the first imaginatively plausible device in The Time Machine (1895), did not re-use the idea, even though the notion of an instantaneous trip through time served one essential function for the writer who wished to illuminate the world to come: it brought the then and the now into abrupt and glaring contrast. When Wells came to write his first dystopia, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910), he fell back on the convention of the protagonist who falls asleep in the present day and wakes again in the future. Not for the first time in his career, he did not invent but gave definitive form to (and named, in the vt) a significant sf theme or motif.

The sleeper-awakes device shares with Time Travel, however, the capacity to transit centuries in the turning of a page, so that the essential function of contrast between the then and the now can be retained in exemplary focus. The two most famous late-nineteenth-century Utopias in the English language, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), took advantage of the device to sharpen contrasts throughout. Many less famous titles, like Ismar Thiusen's The Diothas (1883), also utilized it. In his Science Fiction: The Early Years (1991), E F Bleiler lists about 40 further novels and stories published before 1930 – by no means all of them utopias or dystopias – which feature an awakened sleeper. Few have retained much popularity, although W H Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887; rev 1906), Alvarado M Fuller's A.D. 2000 (1890), Jerome K Jerome's short Satire The New Utopia (in Diary of a Pilgrimage (and Six Essays) coll 1891; 2010 ebook), Horace W C Newte's The Master Beast (1907; vt The Red Fury 1919) and Edward Shanks's The People of the Ruins (1920) remain of some interest.

It is hard to escape the sense that the sleeper-awakes structure betrayed, even before the beginning of the twentieth century, an undue fastidiousness of imagination, and that some straightforward magic (like a Time Machine) might always have been a more elegant option; even more attractive to the imagination, of course, would have been a story which did not need a time-frame or anchor to make its point about the worlds to come, or to thrill its readers with the new. One of the centrally important accomplishments of Genre SF has been the abandonment of the anchor of the present day, for most genre sf is set unabashedly in the future, and needs no present-day protagonist to reassure its readers of the imaginative reality of the new worlds. A non-genre writer like J Leslie Mitchell might still hint at something along the lines of the device when he sent the eponymous heroine of Gay Hunter (1934) 20,000 years hence, but few sleepers-awake stories appeared in genre sf until the development of the notion of the Generation Starship, in the bowels of which might repose thousands of humans in Suspended Animation; and, anyway, here the sleepers tend not to be the protagonists of the tale – it is their shepherds, in the here and now of the narrative, who generally fill that role. Only occasionally – as in Orson Scott Card's Hot Sleep (fixup 1979) – will a sleeper awake from generation-starship solitude as protagonist in a changed world. Other genre-sf examples of the device tend to be introduced as homage – like Mack Reynolds's Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (1973) with its titular gesture to Edward Bellamy, or Arthur C Clarke's enervated 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) – or with an edge of Satire, as with C M Kornbluth's dark "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy); Robert A Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon (April-May 1942 Astounding as Anson MacDonald; 1948), where the sleeper from the twentieth century is a near-comic and far from central figure; and Frederik Pohl's playful treatment of future shock in The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969). Sometimes, as in T J Bass's remarkable Half Past Human (December 1969 Galaxy and November 1970 If; fixup 1971), the device is integrated into genre pyrotechnics that far transcend its original simplicity. This is also true of Vernor Vinge's variation on the theme in Rainbows End (2006), with a character resurrected from 20 years in the oblivion of Alzheimer's to be dazzled by the much-changed Near Future of 2025. But these are eccentric examples. When, after 1926, the future became domesticated as a venue for the imagination, the serious sleeper-awakes tale largely faded away.

Media treatments which milk the theme for Humour include the Television series The Second Hundred Years (1967-1968), the fine Woody Allen film Sleeper (1973), the Sherlock Holmes film The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987), and Red Dwarf (1988-current). But Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-1967) deals seriously with its revivified Victorian Hero.

There are also many tales in both nineteenth-century sf and genre sf which feature a figure from the past who awakens into the present. Indeed, this is a far older theme, growing perhaps from legends like that of Sleeping Beauty and famously given new life by Washington Irving in "Rip Van Winkle" (in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent coll 1819-1820 7vols; omni 1820 2vols), whose lazy protagonist falls asleep in the Catskills for twenty years. Modern tales of this sort rarely focus on the awakened sleeper, but on the impact that an intruder from beyond, whose responses to us may well be inappropriate or alien, might have upon our own world. [JC/DRL]

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