The Man Who Awoke
– Review by Kevin Hamilton –
By Laurence Manning, originally published in 1933 in the magazine Wonder Stories; reprinted in 1975 in paperback by Ballentine Books 168 pp. ISBN 345-24367-6-150.
I am taking the occasion of the 90th anniversary of its initial publication to raise awareness of the science fiction novel “The Man Who Awoke” by Canadian author Laurence Manning (1899-1972) at what is now a particularly appropriate cultural moment. (Note that this review considerably expands and adapts an earlier article intended for the general public that I recently published on https://theacademic.com/).
A Half-Century Lost in the Battle Against Climate Change?
I discovered Manning’s novel in the course of my research into a much broader issue, namely why the rather sensational turn-of-the-20th century prediction by Svante Arrehenius of strong climate warming expected from continued burning of fossil fuels had such an extraordinarily muted penetration into the general culture for well over half a century. The lack of interest among the public and among governments in possible anthropogenic climate change occurred despite the fact that Arrhenius was a world renowned scientist and his prediction was included in his book intended for the general public “Worlds in the Making” (an English translation was published by a major international publisher in 1908).
With hindsight we can see that an opportunity was missed for humanity to seriously assess the practical implications of global warming, and then to take some appropriate mitigating actions. As today we face the need for extremely urgent action to avoid looming catastrophes it is reasonable to lament this “lost half-century” in the battle to control global warming.
A possible pathway for initial penetration of scientific ideas into the mainstream is via science fiction. An expert on the history of science fiction, Sherryl Vint, has recently published a survey of stories featuring the modern scientific notion of anthropogenic climate change. Interestingly Vint found no directly relevant examples published until the later decades of the 20th century and she even remarks that “the shift from pollution to climate change as the main engine of dystopian futures [in literature] doesn’t firmly take hold until the 21st century”.
As I will argue here, Manning’s “Man Who Awoke” (which is not mentioned by Vint) represents an interesting datum in documenting the lack of general awareness of anthropogenic greenhouse warming in the early 20th century. Manning’s book also has a wider interest for the present day reader as its descriptions of several speculative futures for human society have turned out to be remarkably prescient. With the recent release of chatGPT, artificial intelligence has now joined human genetic modification, virtual reality, climate change and the related challenges of sustainability as potentially disruptive issues currently receiving great public attention. I will show here that Manning’s novel quite remarkably anticipated each of these concerns that help define our current anxious cultural moment.
A Novel of Time Travel
In “The Man Who Awoke” the author adopts a plot involving a “time traveller”, a conceit used as early as 1895 by H.G. Wells in his famous novel “The Time Machine”. As other authors would do, Manning uses this plot device to explore possible future developments in human society. Rather than relying on the utterly fantastical “time machine” dreamt up by Wells, Manning was at pains to describe a more plausible way for a 20th century man to experience life in the distant future. Specifically he imagined his hero, Norman Winters, as a rich man who devises a scheme to lie in a secret underground chamber on his Long Island, New York estate, in a drug-induced hibernation state. Winters succeeds in waking up to experience brief periods of life outside his chamber in the years AD 5000, 10000, 15000, 20000 and 25000, each waking episode presenting an opportunity for the author to explore a different aspect of humankind’s possible future.
A Completely Sustainable World
At AD 5000 Winters finds a world covered in thick forests from which much of the infrastructure of the 20th century, including New York City, has vanished. Fortunately a stable and reasonably prosperous human society still exists, although Winters learns that civilization had to be rebuilt after a total collapse. At roughly AD 2500 humanity had reached “the height of the false civilization of Waste! Fossil plants were ruthlessly burned in furnaces to provide heat; petroleum was consumed by the billion barrels; cheap metal cars were built and thrown away to rust after a few years’ use..”. The new civilization that had subsequently arisen was keenly focused on sustainability. Most of the population was accommodated in villages of about 1000 people and each depended on the extensive local forests for food (e.g. chestnut flour, mushrooms cultivated on felled logs) and other resources. There were also some factory villages located near a notable renewable energy source – the Niagara Falls hydroelectric dam. Transportation was achieved by “flying wheels” which apparently resemble the kind of vertical takeoff “drone aircraft” that have become familiar in recent years in the real world.
The dominant organizing principle of the civilization was an obsessive commitment to preserving the total amount of the forest, thus maintaining a completely sustainable society. Manning even addresses the issue of how the flying wheels would be powered sustainably with forest resources, anticipating the current real world concern of how commercial aviation could avoid the use of fossil fuel and be carbon neutral. Manning’s solution of using wood alcohol as the fuel even anticipates current proposals to power aircraft with biofuels.
In 1974 the notable writer Isaac Asimov, in his history of early science fiction literature “Before the “Golden Age”, wrote about this aspect of Manning’s novel: “[Now] everyone is aware of […] the energy crisis. Manning was aware of it forty years ago. […] literature had the youngsters who read it concerned about the consequences of the waste of fossil fuels forty years before the self-styled normal and sensible human beings felt it necessary to become interested.”
The society Manning describes at AD 5000 maintains a perfectly sustainable carbon budget. However, Manning does not mention the implications for the atmosphere and climate stability, an omission that will seem amazing to a present day reader. It seems likely that Manning simply was unaware of the issues that had been raised by Arrhenius a quarter century earlier. Interestingly, a later chapter in the book shows that Manning was aware of long period global climate change related to natural glacial cycles (see below).
Laurence Manning was born in St. John, New Brunswick and studied at King’s College in Halifax where in 1919 he received a Bachelor of Civil Law degree. It seems he may never have worked as a lawyer but began a writing career as a journalist on a local newspaper, later moving to New York City where he found employment in horticulture as a manager of a nursery. In the mid-1920’s he wrote some articles for gardening magazines but in 1927 began submitting stories to science fiction magazines. Manning was not a professional scientist but seems to have had exceptionally strong scientific interests. In his own novel he made an effort to propose scientifically plausible descriptions of future technological breakthroughs. He also was a pioneer in amateur rocketry as a founding member of the Interplanetary Society in 1930 (renamed in 1934 as the American Rocket Society) and he later served as the society’s president. That a sophisticated person such as Manning was apparently ignorant of the potential threat of anthropogenic global warming in 1933 is a telling (if anecdotal) observation documenting the limited cultural penetration of the global warming issue at the time.
As an aside, Manning also anticipated later developments in Japanese archeology! Specifically Manning’s notion that managed chestnut forests could provide the staple food source for a civilization has a striking parallel in an aspect of modern archeological thinking about the Jomon people who lived circa 14000-300 BCE in Stone Age (and preagricultural) Japan. Starting in the 1950’s archeologists have speculated that the Jomon supported a surprisingly sophisticated society by supplementing hunting/gathering with food from extensive managed chestnut forests.
A World Ruled by Artificial Intelligence
In the next chapter of “The Man Who Awoke” Winters emerges from his chamber again in AD 10000 and finds a remarkably changed world. The beautifully maintained forest had become an overgrown wilderness. People now lived in a great city run by The Brain, a giant electrically powered computer that apparently had achieved some kind of consciousness and actually had become an object of human worship. Thanks to The Brain, a technologically sophisticated society had developed that allowed people to live lives mainly devoted to self-indulgence. Winters asks one man about “..the more serious minded men ..scientists, planners…where are they?” and receives a reply “This is the city of The Brain! How should mere men hope to better His work? He is infallible – we are full of human weaknesses and frailties”.
It seems this quote could practically be from an account of the promise and perils of today’s developments in artificial intelligence. Even the contrast between the hypothetical infallibility of the mechanical brain and the frailty of humans has an echo in the expectation that self-driving cars will be much safer than cars driven by imperfect humans. The recent release of programs such as ChatGPT have fueled fears of increased reliance on the judgements of opaque artificial intelligence algorithms.
Winters, as an outsider, appreciates the danger of the reliance on The Brain and perceives its effective tyranny as a grave threat to humanity. He is able to convince a few people to join him in a scheme that destroys The Brain and liberates society. Winters becomes famous worldwide for his revolution, but decides that he will secretly return to his underground chamber and arrange to emerge again in the year AD 15000.
A World Seduced by Virtual Reality
In this next world Winters finds a much warmer climate compared with the 20th century, a change accompanied by a 30 foot sea level rise and a very disrupted distribution of plants and animals. He attributes this to a continued (presumably natural) retreat from ice age conditions. More dramatically he finds a world with people concentrated in cities and that the vast majority of humans have opted to live their lives in “dream palaces”. In a dream palace a person’s body becomes nearly inert and his brain is operated on so that nerve endings are connected to a machine that can supply artificial stimulation. The technology has become so evolved that a person opting for the operation can arrange in advance for an entire lifetime of scripted stimulation allowing him to experience the kind of life he prefers: “..as far as the dreamer is concerned he seems to living a complete life. Before he enters he determines what things he wishes to experience. Some […] fight wild beasts in the wilderness; […]; others make trips in rocket ships to Mars or Venus and experience incredible adventures.” One young person wished “to dream a life of ease and homely comfort with occasional adventures and dangers that are so arranged as to end happily.”
The attraction of the dreaming life is so strong that only a tiny portion of society opts to live real lives and this small minority keep the cities and the dream palaces operating. Winters sees that continuing along this path would mean the extinction of humanity – already 7 months had passed since the last birth in a city of a million people. Again Winters organizes a kind of revolution and leads a small remnant to escape the city and found a new village that provides hope for the future – while the cities along with all their dreamers must unavoidably die out.
Manning’s idea of a dream world fed directly into human brains, bypassing the usual organs of sensation, would later have a clear parallel in the world imagined in Hollywood’s 1999 movie “The Matrix”. Of course, today we are still far from the technological capacity imagined in Manning’s dream palaces or in “The Matrix”, but the idea of an immersive world experience directed into our consciousness mediated by sophisticated technology is echoed in today’s already extant “virtual reality” technology and the notion of a vast “metaverse” to be “inhabited” by humanity. In just the last few years the notion of a metaverse has had a strong public profile as a large investment has been made by a major company. Manning also anticipated our present day concerns with human brain implants to facilitate a direct machine-brain interface.
A World of Near-Immortality Via Biotechnology
The novel’s final chapter begins with Winters emerging from hibernation in AD 25000 and provides yet another example of Manning’s anticipation of current technological developments and related philosophical concerns. Manning imagines that technology then is able to manipulate life on a cellular level to create cultures of what we would today call stem cells for each of a supposed 270 types of cells in a human body. Then scientists could “insert in its proper place in [the body] a small particle of each of the 270 types of cellular tissue. Nature [does] the rest and [the] entire body is [then] made up of new fresh, vigorous cells.” By repeating this procedure over and over again an enormous extension of life span can be achieved. The novel concludes with Winters musings on the social and psychological implications of physical near immortality.
Of course in 1933 Manning could not know about the workings of cells on the molecular level and specifically the mechanisms of heredity, but his vision suggested that science would eventually be able to manipulate life at the cellular level with profound consequences for life expectancy. In fact, after only 90 years in the real world we have made remarkable progress in this regard, with tools for genetic manipulation, the discovery and culturing of stem cells and the beginnings of stem cell therapies. A current experimental regenerative medicine procedure to replace a patient’s blood vessels with tubes grown from the patients’ own cell lines seems like it could have come directly from Manning’s novel.
Manning’s Remarkable Foreshadowing of Today’s Concerns
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s marked the beginning of cheap mass-market (or “pulp”) magazines devoted entirely to stories about science fiction and fantasy. Hundreds of science fiction stories were published each year by magazines in the US alone. Out of all the stories published in this period, Laurence Manning’s “The Man Who Awoke” stands out for its imaginative anticipation of several spectacular real world developments that have played out in subsequent decades. Manning’s singular vision presaged our current cultural moment in remarkable fashion and deserves rediscovery and commemoration on this 90th anniversary year.
Kevin Hamilton is Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and retired Director of the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) at the University of Hawaii. He has had a long career in academia and government including stints at McGill and the University of British Columbia in the 1980’s. His main research interests have been in stratospheric dynamics and climate modeling, but he has also investigated aspects of the history of meteorology. He currently serves as an Editor of the journal History of Geo- and Space Sciences.