H. G. Wells is one of the pioneers of science fiction and probably one of the most influential authors of that genre. An argument can be made that almost any contemporary science fiction theme (alien invasion, time travel, biological manipulation, technology gone awry, dystopian future societies) can in one way or another be traced back to an H. G. Wells novel.
A big part of H. G. Wells' appeal, as is the case with all good science fiction, comes from the fact that the stories he wrote were not primarily (or even predominantly) designed to titillate with speculation of novel technologies, or space aliens, or any other sensationalist image. His stories explore many of out most fundamental desires and fears, and they all had a significant dose of social criticism. This is one of the main reasons why his stories are still read today and have for the most part aged remarkably well.
Nowhere is the fact of timelessness of Wells' fiction better illustrated than in "The Sleeper Awakes." This is a short novel about a nineteen century Englishman who falls in a deep sleep only to awake over two hundred years later. The World has changed beyond recognition, and "The Sleeper" finds himself in a remarkable predicament - he has become the owner of the entire planet. This state of affairs was made possible because no one really expected him to wake up, so for the most part his ownership of all the World's resources was thought only to be nominal. However, his awakening profoundly shakes this state of affairs, and he suddenly finds himself at the very center of revolutionary social upheavals and a struggle for the ultimate power. This struggle is the main focus of the larger part of the novel.
"The Sleeper Awakes" at a first sight seems to have some resemblance to Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving, but it is a much darker tale. (It is certainly a far cry from Woody Allen's ridiculous comedy adaptation "Sleeper"). Wells expects the future society on the one hand to be a very advanced and a highly desirable place to live, but it also has a much darker and more sinister side to it. This utopia/dystopia dichotomy is the source of tension in the novel, and it also provides very effective rationale for the plot advancement. The theme of sleeper has a lot of strong resonances with both Arthurian legends and the basic tenants of Christianity. It is to Wells' credit that he manages to tap into those subjects in a subtle way that its does not force itself on the reader. In fact, Wells' writing is overall of the very high quality. He was mindful to write good literature, and not just entertaining stories for mass consumption.
There are a few futuristic ideas in this novel that seem silly and naïve in retrospect, but they in no way detract from the main story. The reader should also be mindful of the fact that some of the attitudes that Wells exhibits in this novel might be considered bigoted today, but in this respect he was just a product of his own age. With these caveats in mind, "The Sleeper Awakes" is a very interesting and thought-provoking novel that should appeal to anyone who is interested in serious vintage science fiction.