Thematic Elements



Braden Ryan

Evolution in The Coming Race

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Coming Race is considered one of the first Science Fiction novels ever because of the amazing technological and evolutionary developments that are detailed within it. Upon finding a new nation of people living underneath the earth, our narrator assimilates into their community, and through his writing we are able to read the novel for the many criticisms and satires within it, in comparison to mankind in the late 19th century. One of the foremost themes throughout the novel is evolution. Ever since the biblical flood, the Vril-ya have taken to living underneath the ground, and have experienced a much different kind of evolution than that of man on earth. The main component in making the Vril-ya so evolutionarily advanced is the extraction of a power supply called Vril. Since the discovery of Vril, the Vril-ya evolved into flying, powerful, genetically pure, and even telepathically elite forms of humans.

Through the power of the Vril, the Vril-ya are able to maintain a technologically fueled Utopia. It allows them to become not only genetically evolved, but also socially as well. While today we may think of their form of government as communist, for them, Vril keeps perfect order in society because of immense power, and if one wished to do so, could kill the entire population with a flick of the wrist. We are able to see the evolutionary power the Vril yields to the Vril-ya when the narrator goes along with a very young boy, Tae, to hunt and kill a one hundred foot reptile. In their society, the Vril-ya leave the protection of the city up to the youngest children of the society, because the Vril allows them to kill so easily. When the narrator does not wish to act as bait, the Tae uses telepathy on him, which is described as, “All power of volition left me. Submissive to the infants gesture, I followed him” (116). Through this quote we can see the physical use and effect Vril has. By touching the narrator, Tae is able to control his mind, in order to use him as bait to kill a giant creature, which he does at ease through the power of Vril.

The book takes a satirical turn when the actual prospect of evolution is discussed. Just a few decades before the publication of The Coming Race, Charles Darwin published his discoveries on evolution in, On the Origin of Species. While we know today Darwin was correct about much of our evolutionary roots, the concept was still new, and Bulwer-Lytton uses a frog as an example of the Vril-ya’s understanding of evolution. The narrator’s guide, Zee, tells him that some Vril-ya believe that the frog was their ancestors, while others believe that they are the degeneration of the frog and that the frog is the highest form of evolution. She describes the belief to him, saying,


“Again, the Frog had the power to live alike on land and in water-a-mighty privilege, partaking of a spiritual essence denied to the An, since the disuse of his swimming bladder clearly proves his degeneration from a higher development of species. Again, the earlier races of the Ana seem to have been covered with hair, and, even to a comparatively recent date, hirsute bushes deformed the very faces of out ancestors, spreading wild over their cheeks and chins, as similar bushes, my poor Tish, spread wild over yours” (98).


This description of the basis of evolution for the Vril-ya is no doubt satirical of Darwin’s, but nonetheless conveys of message of superiority over human beings. The fact that they are now completely hairless, and consider hair to be degenerative, could convey that message to a society that believes that they are the descendants of apes. For the Vril, the frog is the highest form of evolution, while human society will always believe it is themselves, and that suggests a sort of degeneration in itself.

The juxtaposition between the Vril-ya and the human race is a direct representation of the anxiety surrounding evolution at the time the novel was written. Bulwer-Lytton is essentially commenting on the idea of evolution within his novel, represented through a race of evolutionarily superior, super humans. The Vril acts as a superior technology, making it possible for the Vril-ya to evolve in an advanced genetic and societal way, until they reach a state of docile living. The Vril-ya are supposed to be a representation of a utopian community, but in reality they are a technologically fueled super race, who use their absolute power as a way to maintain order in society. It is because of their evolutionary superiority that they are given the name The Coming Race, and because of their belief in evolution and reaching the highest form of existence that they view the narrator and the entire human race as a degenerative species.

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