Although When the Sleeper Wakes was revised, altered, and republished in 1910 (under the title The Sleeper Wakes), the original 1899 edition is considered the standard text. The story concerns a middle-aged Victorian man named Graham who falls into a mesmeric trance and wakes in the future. The new London that greets him is a mechanized city of polished steel and glass controlled by a council of powerful men who are themselves a combination of political despots and capitalist exploiters. The proletarian masses are herded along an elaborate public transport system of moving sidewalks to long, mindless hours of work in the Labor Company. They have neither property nor privacy, their children are raised by state-run mechanical “mothers,” and their revolutionary consciousness is numbed by incessant subliminal brainwashing effected by phonographic machines that blurt out hypnotic suggestions. Members of the rich elite, who might have reforming ideas, are kept under control by being sent off to the Pleasure Cities, where both their desires to ease the evils of society and the excess wealth of the city are consumed.
The plot is propelled by the fact that, by a fluke of history, two childless industrialists willed their stocks to the sleeping Graham. Under the supervision of a board of trustees, these stocks grew into a huge economic-political cartel. When Graham wakes, he finds that he owns half the world, that the controllers have been controlling his stock for him, and that he is the focal point of a messianic hope on the part of the masses.
When the controllers attempt to assassinate Graham, he is rescued by revolutionary workers led by Ostrog, “the Boss.” Ostrog uses Graham’s awakening to mobilize the people and, by means of a lightning-strike coup d’état, overthrows the controllers and sets himself up as the new despot. At first, Graham trusts Ostrog; however, after being apprised of the misery of the masses by Ostrog’s niece, Graham accepts his messianic destiny and leads the workers in a mass uprising. Ostrog orders that foreign troops be flown in to quell the revolt. Graham, who has learned the secrets of aero-flight, engages in an aerial battle with the passenger planes. The novel ends in the midst of battle, with Graham’s plane about to plummet to earth.