February 29, 2024

The Coming Race — remembering Bulwer-Lytton

Hi there ,

Enhancement, physical, intellectual and moral, is a lively subject of discussion among some bioethicists. Is it ethical? Should it be treated as a public good? Should moral enhancement be compulsory? Since the discussion is largely speculative, its more outlandish proposals verge on science fiction. So it makes sense to see what ethical dilemmas sci fi writers have highlighted in their own work.

In this respect, I recently stumbled across an intriguing novel published anonymously by the Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Nowadays Bulwer-Lytton’s memory is preserved by a fiction contest named after him for the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels. But in his day, he was a best-selling author and much admired by dabblers in the occult. 

He also had a gift for coining clichés. One of these, “the almighty dollar”, comes from his 1871  utopian science fiction novel The Coming Race. An American mining engineer discovers that an advanced civilisation, the Vril-ya, dwells in caverns deep beneath the surface of the earth. They possess a substance called vril (for UK readers, Bovril is named after it) which is the source of immense power, light and curing.

This race were once human but they have evolved into utterly superior beings – taller, stronger, wiser, morally upright, and telepathic. The women are the superior sex in every respect.

Their moral enhancement leads them to be serenely inscrutable and detached from emotions. But not more compassionate. In fact, as superior beings, they exterminate whole subterranean communities of more barbarous humans without compunction. “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,” says the narrator ominously.

It’s an interesting reminder that before implementing “moral enhancement”, you need to ask, whose morals? 


Michael Cook
There is a bioethics lesson in this Victorian novel