A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

To Resolve the Unresolvable: Science Fiction Takes on Jack the Ripper Across Time and Space


Historically, there is only one Jack the Ripper; rhetorically, there are thousands. In recent years there has been a significant push to use modern forensic techniques to identify the Ripper, including DNA testing. None of these has – or likely ever will – deliver a satisfactory explanation, and this opens the door to more extreme possibilities, ones that extend the myth of the Ripper rather than rewriting his history. Was Jack the Ripper an alien? Was he possessed by an ethereal force? Was he never caught because he escaped into the future? Like D.B. Cooper or the Zodiac Killer, Jack the Ripper is a semi-historical figure both confined by his chronotope and freed by his mystery; his murders are historical fact, his true identity a fiction. In their study “Science Fiction as Mythology,”’ Thomas and Marilyn Sutton observe, “Myth is typically concerned with the study of origins whereas science generally focuses on the study of destiny” (231). Jack the Ripper crosses both these liminalities as a product of popular culture, mythic in origin, particularly as it is explored through the lens of speculative science to find out what became of him. Utilizing Jack the Ripper’s status as a figure of popular culture  allows the character to carry this weight of possibilities in a way that purely historical fiction could not.

Jack the Ripper is arguably the most iconic killer of all time, not simply for the brutality of his crimes, but because he was never brought to justice. Science fiction, a genre that embraces both the factual and fictional, becomes the perfect gedankenexperiment (a “thought experiment”, a theory or hypothesis that is explored in the mind and not in the world) with which to resolve Jack the Ripper: the events are fact but to identify Jack is a fiction. The application of Jack the Ripper as SF trope has become so pervasive, he warrants his own entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Langford, “Jack the Ripper”). Memory of the crime scene details, the state of fear in the London of 1888, the frustrations of Inspector Frederick Abberline, and a century of post-Jack speculations work together to form a metanarrative that in each iteration must be distinctive from those that came before. There is an extensive body of work in literature, film and television, graphic novels, and gaming in which the Ripper murders feature, each one taking the canonical facts and synthesizing them with original narrative. The story of Jack the Ripper is told over and over again, but each time the narrative resolves itself with a different version of Jack: For the television series Sanctuary, it is John Druitt; for Babylon 5, a man called Sebastian; for Kim Newman in Anno Dracula it is Dr. John Stewart and for Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, Jack was actually the hero, helping to save the world from a Halloween invasion. The Ripper crosses cultures, genres, and media as a tool for both the professional and the amateur to engage with one of the most profound mysteries in the history of crime. What follows is a close examination of Jack the Ripper in science fiction as time traveler, as corporeal other, and as ethereal other three of the prominent forms SF has found to deal with the historical weight of Jack’s memory in popular culture.

Every author, director, and fanfiction writer is forced to address certain key factual elements in taking on Jack the Ripper: 1) at least five women were murdered in the East End of London in 1888; 2) the nature of these deaths are graphically described in public documents; 3) Inspector Frederick Abberline and Scotland Yard’s involvement in the case; 4) authorities failed to bring the murderer to justice. Jack’s very name is “both a necessary fiction and a fact missing its history” (96) according to Clive Bloom, a duality that creates a limited freedom for the sleuth-writer. As long as the existence of these indisputable facts are acknowledged by the creator of the work (and not countered without thorough explanation), a near infinite universe of solutions is available. Jack’s story has so permeated the popular consciousness and collective memory that a thorough explanation of the facts is not even necessary; it is enough to simply name Jack. But each universe in which the solution exists is independent from another solution. There are scores of non-fiction (purportedly) books that claim to reveal the identity of the Ripper; each different in identification and/or reasoning. If they weren’t, there would hardly be a purpose to publishing them. Narratives about Jack the Ripper are like a Venn diagram with only one large circle of data – the historical memory of the case – surrounded by individual spheres of fictions that cannot touch each other because there cannot be two solutions to the same case. In essence, every story of Jack the Ripper is a reboot. We are used to thinking of the reboot in just cinematic and televisual terms, revisiting and reimagining known characters in a known universe, but in this instance plots that invoke Jack the Ripper are pulling Jack from known history into a new universe.


Only those pieces of primary evidence and historical record may exist within the central sphere; every work that purports to be “non-fiction” must contain elements of fiction because there is no solution, only speculation with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Nor can Jack the Ripper be both Sebastian from Babylon 5’s “Comes the Inquisitor” and an alien Ju’wes in Doctor Who: The Ripper. In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders argues that “everything we know about Jack the Ripper – his name, his persona, his reasons for killing – is the culmination of a century of murderous entertainment…” (465). This entertainment stemming from grotesque tragedy continues to be a strong element in popular culture memory. To finally identify him – and thus his fate – would allow us to eliminate one of the monsters that might still stalk the shadows.

If one can be a “fan” of Jack the Ripper, one is more likely a fan of the mystery rather than the murder (hopefully); Robin Odell claims that Jack is the “patron saint of serial killers” (255). Everyone wants the chance to be the detective who cracks the case, and the public availability of information about the Ripper murders allows Jack to be perpetually tried in absentia. As Michael Connor says, “Modern Ripperology is a game. Choose a name,…choose your clues and anyone could write a book proving that anyone possibly alive in 1888 was Jack…” (76). Science Fiction, though, allows for the additional removal of Jack the Ripper from the chronotope of 1888 Whitechapel. These are not mystery narratives – the crime and criminal are already known; the only part of the puzzle to uncover is the fate of Jack, and perhaps his birth name. And not just who, but what: is Jack the Ripper even human? Many writers like to think otherwise.

The inclusion of Jack the Ripper in a science fictional tale bestows the element of the factual to the fiction; when Jack is removed to the future on a space station (Babylon 5) or a contemporary American prison (“The Strange Case of Lucas Lauder”), these fictional chronotopes are pulled a little further into our reality by virtue of their recognizable antagonist. To distinguish the fantastic Ripper from the science fictional Ripper, none of the tales are set in 1888 unless time travel is involved; no alternate realities or dreamscapes. History is already written; Jack the Ripper was never a vampire (with apologies to Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula), nor did he flee to a steampunk-inspired Gotham City in America (further apologies to Brian Augustyn’s Gotham by Gaslight). The popular consciousness is more apt to accept a disembodied or alien Jack moved forward in time, or a human traveler to the past, than the inexplicable rewriting of thousands of history books; the myth requires continuity within the science fiction versions of Jack.

Science fiction’s engagement with – and solution to – Jack the Ripper takes a few specific forms: the time traveler, the corporeal other, and the disembodied other. Each of these allows for the seemingly supernatural violence and evasion of Jack: “In chasing the identity of the Ripper… investigators acknowledge the bizarre silence at the heart of the tale, a place where history has closed in upon itself and refused its fact” (Bloom, 97).  Every reimagining of the case engages in its own mimetic dance with history, equally as plausible as the next, because there is not – and never likely will be – a definitive identity and biography of Jack the Ripper; for every non-fiction work that claims to possess the answer, there is another negating the findings. The way in which a particular work of science fiction engages with the Ripper reflects one of the possible resolutions to the crime, without ever entering into discussion with other works, always maintaining a singular solution.

The online catalogue of film and television, Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) lists no fewer than 84 entries for “Jack the Ripper” character appearances (as of July 20, 2016), and this is surely not a complete accounting. In addition, the number of novels and non-fiction books reach into the thousands, as any search on amazon.com reveals. This table breaks down some of the most well known science fiction works to invoke Jack the Ripper by type (and sometimes name) of the killer character.

Sebastian, “Comes the Inquisitor,” Babylon 5 [TV] “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” Weird Tales [short story] Anna, Hands of the Ripper [Film]
“A Toy for Juliette,” Dangerous Visions [short story] John Druitt, Sanctuary [TV] “Ripper,” The Outer Limits [TV]
“The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” Dangerous Visions [short story] The Valeyard, Doctor Who: Matrix [novel] Guy Richards/Lucas Lauder, “The Strange Case of Lucas Lauder,” CBS Radio Mystery Theater [Audio]
Sir William Gull/Ian Pascoe, “A Rip in Time,” Timecop [TV] Mac’atyde, Doctor Who: The Ripper’s Curse [Comic] Adam, “With Affection, Jack the Ripper,” The Sixth Sense [TV]
Stevenson, Time After Time [Film and novel] “The Ripper,” Kolchak: The Night Stalker [TV] “Wolf in the Fold,” Star Trek [TV]
Dr. Albert Fell, “,” Fantasy Island [TV] Roger Eddington, Bridge Across Time [Film]


Jack as Time Traveler

Either under his own power, or not of his volition, Jack the Ripper has escaped into multiple futures after the murder of his fifth victim. This type of Jack is usually the most human of those presented by SF, because only this Jack needs to violate time and space to make his escape rather than outliving the rest of his contemporaries via superhuman capabilities. Either alien intervention or humans from the future are responsible for this type of Ripper narrative. In no instance, though, is the history of Jack altered. David Wittenberg explores time travel narratives and how they reflect our approach to history:

This sort of plot, in which characters or actions affect the past but do not change it, is a favorite of both physicists and philosophers because it appears to be consistent both with logic and with the theoretical possibility of “closed timelike curves,” solutions of the general theory of relativity that permit time travel to the past (153)

This is the conservation of history and narrative by the composers of Ripper narratives; rewriting history to alter the events of 1888 would create such a vast temporal disruption that the narrative would be overwhelmed by the changes. Jack’s inclusion in the story must maintain the “closed timelike curves” or else it strays into the realm of alternative histories and fantasy, negating even the slightest possibility of a mimetic plot.

The simplest time travelling Ripper narrative is uncovering Jack’s identity. The television show Fantasy Island portrayed an ambitious writer visiting the island so that she can finally uncover the identity of Jack the Ripper in the episode “With Affection, Jack the Ripper” (29 November 1980); this is her fantasy, one shared by many others. The perpetrator in this case is a Dr. Albert Z. Fell, an original solution without any Ripperologist or historical connections. He embodies the stereotypical physician Jack, bitter towards the female of the species because his mother turned to prostitution and blackmailed his father. Don Ingalls’s script is about identifying the psychology of the Ripper, the breaking point for his madness: “For every year of my father’s shame and of my degradation, another harlot shall die…”  Fantasy Island fulfills the fantasy of thousands of Ripperologists, giving Jack a face, a name, a motive, and a resolution to the case, not just with a name, but when Dr. Fell follows the portal into the modern world, this puts an end to his murder spree in 1888. There is little concern for the victims, no attempt to correct past crimes with the power of time travel, only the satisfaction of a case closed 92 years after the fact.

For Harlan Ellison’s 1967 Dangerous Visions collection, prolific Ripper-writer Robert Bloch also sent Jack far into the future in “A Toy for Juliette.” Juliette, a bored sadist whose “Grandfather” procures devices of torture and victims for her pleasure by pulling them from the past, has the misfortune of welcoming Jack the Ripper into her bedroom. “The toy” Juliette is presented with is described as a “blushing Victorian” and “a physician” (138), playing into the hypothesis that Jack was medically trained. The world the Ripper enters is one that could have been of his own making, degenerate and violent; Bloch’s imagined future and Jack’s recent past are one and the same. Ellison was so inspired by “A Toy for Juliette” that he followed with his own continuation of Bloch’s tale, “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” sending Jack out to explore this future that seems built upon his own dreams. The violence of Jack’s crimes and unease of 1888 London served as mirrors for the society of a century after.

Time After Time appeared as a novel by Karl Alexander  and a film by Nicholas Meyer in 1979, centering around Jack the Ripper fleeing into contemporary San Francisco, pursued by H.G. Wells. Jack thrives in the moral degradation of modern America, whereas Wells, a utopianist, is horrified to see how far reality has fallen from his vision. This tale, like the two from Dangerous Visions, is not about identifying and capturing Jack the Ripper; instead, Time After Time is about comparing our world to the psychological profile of Jack, then contrasting it with the more hopeful dreams our genre predecessors had for the future of humanity. A New York Times review notes that actor David Warner’s Jack “so effectively makes the film’s point about the timelessness of evil that the screenplay’s further remarks on the subject seem redundant” (Maslin, “Movie Review: Time After Time”). This is what Jack the Ripper means to so many modern SF writers who delve into the subject: Jack’s crimes are not truly unique – he is the embodiment of all those perpetrators of evil. This theme carries through in an episode of the short-lived television series Timecop (based on the film of the same name) used a contemporary, time-travelling serial killer as the explanation for Jack. “A Rip in Time” (aired 22 September 1997) begins with an unidentified Jack the Ripper being killed by a time traveler, who takes on the persona and crimes of Jack; “Once you master the art of murder, you touch the face of God,” the new Ripper claims (Gough, 1997). He wants to become a greater killer than the Ripper ever was historically. The Ripper is not a source of evil in himself, but a goal, an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for human derangement, because if you can’t beat them, join them.Each of the preceding examples demonstrated a Jack whose presence was meant to expose and interrogate modern society and its bloodlust; these Rippers are hardly distinguishable from the rest of us once removed from their own setting. However, Babylon 5 creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski cast Jack the Ripper as a man kidnapped by aliens in 1888 and used to interrogate (and torture) potential allies of the Vorlons. “Comes the Inquisitor” (aired 25 October 1995) may have been influenced by Harlan Ellison, who was a writer and consultant for the show and, as mentioned, has his own history with the Ripper mythos. The episode narrative in no way revolves around Jack the Ripper, his crimes or history, and only at the end is the truth revealed when the character of Sebastian/Jack laments: “Remembered not as a reformer, not as a prophet, not as a hero, not even as Sebastian. Remembered only… as Jack” (Straczynski, 1995). This brief monologue, and ‘Sebastian’s’ employment as the inquisitor, reveals some of the hypothesized psychology of Jack, that he murdered Whitechapel prostitutes as some sort of misguided crusade against immorality and degeneration. Anyone could have been used to fill the role of inquisitor, but Straczynski’s choice of the Ripper draws together historical mystery/memory and the idea of the unwitting antihero. His task for the Vorlons is to be “Diogenes with his lamp looking for a man willing to die for all the wrong reasons.” The Inquisitor is looking for “the right people, in the right place, at the right time” to lead the forces of light against the Shadows in the coming war. Sebastian/Jack was chosen for this task specifically because he was the antithesis of the right person in the right place at the right time. Rarely do writers visit Jack’s own idea of himself and his crimes, moving a step beyond the external view of pure evil. In this episode, though, the audience is invited to be Jack/Sebastian’s inquisitor, and find him wanting; he is not a heroic soul that can perform the tasks required of those at the other end of his inquiries.

Jack as Corporeal Other

There are two forms of Corporeal Other that science fiction imagines for Jack: the immortal, and the alien. Neither of these Jacks is human in the traditional sense, which sets them apart from the Time Traveling Ripper, which is still traditionally human. Science fiction has long employed the immortal/undead being as a key element of our shared cultural memory, and Jack the Ripper, the great uncaptured villain of his era, often finds himself as immortal as Dracula, the product of another world or another plane of existence.

Robert Bloch’s short story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (Weird Tales 1943) portrays the Ripper as an immortal being who needs to sacrifice humans to maintain his immortality. It was a groundbreaking work at the time, moving the Ripper into the purview of speculative fiction. In contemporary (1943) Chicago a series of grisly murders confounds the police, who are assisted by Sir Guy Hollis of London (whose father originally worked the 1888 case), Dr. John Carmody, a psychiatrist, and Jenny Davis, a newspaper woman. This Jack performs ritualistic murders of women in groups of five to maintain his immortality. It is supernatural, and yet the traditional supernatural charms of garlic, crucifix, etc. can’t defend against this evil; they are pithy, childish talismans against a form of evil that transcends the old ways. Jack’s ultimate victory – again – is synonymous with a world that has not yet repented fully of its sins, and therefore must still be subjected to inexplicable evil. The short story was so popular it was adapted for radio, in Stay Tuned for Terror, and television, as an episode of Thriller (1961). Most recently Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale adapted it into a graphic novel for IDW with the art of Kevin Colden under the same title. Bloch’s work took Jack the Ripper and science fiction into a new direction, one which inspired decades of imitation.

Following a similar setting, the American television show Kolchak: The Night Stalker began its series with an episode called “The Ripper” (first aired 13 September 1974), in which Jack the Ripper himself – and not just an ethereal reincarnation – is haunting the streets of Chicago. What’s more, this Jack possesses superhuman abilities beyond long life, such as speed and strength. The how and why aspects of the narrative are never explored by writer Rudolph Borchert; “the Ripper merely exists without explanation,” as Coville and Lucanio assert in their study of the episode (p. 74). Choosing the Ripper murders to introduce a new show to the public works to orient viewers to a new television character by utilizing a historical character they are familiar with through cultural memory. Though the other traits given to this incarnation of Jack are not consistent with our reality, the mystery of Jack’s identity allows flexibility of interpretation; the viewer’s mind builds the bridges between historical reality and Kolchak’s Ripper.

Combining the immortal and alien forms of the Corporeal Other, we find the American television show Sanctuary using the historical Ripper suspect Montague John Druitt to integrate the Ripper as a central character to the narrative. In this version, Druitt is part of a nineteenth century cabal of spiritualists cum scientists who inject themselves with vampire blood, granting him immortality and the power to teleport, but at a price; he becomes possessed by an evil energy that turns him into the killer known as Jack the Ripper. This is a Jack created by the hubris of scientific achievement, who spends decades trying to ameliorate the damage he caused while possessed. This incarnation of Jack straddles the boundaries of hero and villain, humanizing the Ripper by putting his crimes beyond his control and casting him as contrite in the aftermath.

Another American television show contemporaneous to Sanctuary, Warehouse 13, also adds the supernatural to Jack the Ripper, this time for the series finale (aired 19 May 2014). Traveling back in time, the Ripper is confronted on his own nineteenth century London grounds and deprived of his magic lantern, whose light immobilizes victims. Jack’s appearance is minimal, insignificant to the rest of the episode narrative except for its role as the last case worked by the Warehouse 13 crew. His termination, resolving a century-old mystery, reminds the viewer of the mission the Warehouse agents fulfilled throughout the series, protecting lives and history, and their role in historical events. This Ripper is never given a name, but his ability to murder and mutilate his victims is drawn from the lantern that paralyzes and eventually kills whoever views its light. Jack is not supernatural, but aided by a lantern that is, and is ultimately stopped by a time traveler. Deprived of his power, the Ripper is simply another small problem to be solved by the agents of the Warehouse; viewers are given the dual satisfaction of a resolution to the series and to a pervasive mystery from cultural memory.

Lastly, there is Doctor Who, which addressed the Ripper not once, not twice, but four times (violating the rule against overlapping solutions in the same universe). The novel Matrix (1998) by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker features a Ripper spawned from the Time Lord The Valeyard, who uses the murders to power the Dark Matrix and alter timelines. In a rather self-reflective moment, one of the characters actually asks, “Why is everybody obsessed with Jack the Ripper?” (Perry and Tucker, p 179) Meanwhile, the more recent Doctor Who comic Ripper’s Curse (Lee, 2011) features a Ripper from the alien race “Re’nar”, and Sir Charles Warren of the “Ju’wes” race, directly referencing the 1888 quote associated with Jack the Ripper: “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.” The Eleventh Doctor and his companions Amy and Rory help Warren and Abberline stop the alien threat. However, in the television episode “A Good Man Goes to War,” (aired 4 June 2011), the Silurian Madam Vastra claims to have just eaten a presumably human Jack the Ripper. And most recently (Richards, April 2014), the Doctor Who related audio adventures of Jago & LitefootWax Princess” saw Jack the Ripper escape from prison and terrorize London once more. In this instance his goal is to resurrect a lost lover with organs and blood implanted in a wax figure meant to take the place of Queen Victoria. Abberline is given the chance to redeem himself by stopping the Ripper – with the help of Jago and Litefoot. Four different forms of Doctor Who media, four different answers to Jack the Ripper. The television show is generally the only form considered to be canonical, and would subvert the solutions espoused in the other three, so in the universe of Doctor Who, Jack the Ripper was eaten by a Silurian. Of course, by being Doctor Who, Jack’s fate can be rewritten; his crimes cannot, but his ultimate end can be.

Jack as Ethereal Other

This category treads the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, as science fiction’s treatment of myths frequently does; some of the earliest ideas about the Jack the Ripper were that he was an evil spirit or a demon. Robin Odell’s study Ripperology notes, “Occult explanations of the Ripper’s crimes go back to the dark days in the immediate aftermath of the killings. It was not difficult to imagine that the gross mutilation carried out on Mary Kelly’s body was the work of the Devil.” This Ripper as Ethereal Other occupies the liminalities of the human and the demonic, representing both the worst of us and the evil thrust upon us by the universe.

Robert Bloch combined the alien/disembodied spirit identity for Jack in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (first aired 22 December 1967), in which an alien entity inhabits bodies and uses them to kill. Known as Jack the Ripper on Earth, this entity has moved from world to world for time immemorial with no other purpose than to take life. Ominously, Captain Kirk concludes, “When man moved out into the galaxy that thing must have come with him.” This is still Jack the Warning, reminding viewers that evil will follow us until humanity learns to rise above it.

Several writers have elected to cast a dichotomous perception of the Ripper’s entity by allowing for two possible solutions: either possession by malevolence or madness of the mind. Characters inhabiting the role of Jack may either truly be possessed by an external force of evil or they may suffer from a very real psychological ailment. In attempting to navigate the question of science and spirit, Peter Sasdy’s film Hands of the Ripper (1971, novelized by Guy Adams in 2012) casts the Ripper’s daughter Anna as the successor to her father’s legacy: is she a schizophrenic murderer like her father, or is she possessed by the spirit of her father? The spiritual, rather than the scientific, is Sasdy’s solution, as Anna genuinely is possessed by her father’s evil. Similarly, Don Ingalls wrote The Sixth Sense episode “With Affection, Jack the Ripper” (14 October 1972) for American broadcaster ABC, in which the psyche of the Ripper possesses a psychiatric patient, Adam, in an experiment to use ESP power to receive psychic impressions from the past. Adam begins to recreate Jack’s crimes and imagine himself in 1888 until another psychic stops him. In The CBS Radio Mystery Theater drama “The Strange Case of Lucas Lauder” (28 Februray 1975) the wandering spirit of Jack the Ripper again stalks the world. A death row inmate, Guy Richards, inform the warden – Lucas Lauder – that he is possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper. When each host of the spirit dies, a new host body is selected, in this instance, Lauder. Love, however, specifically the love of Lauder’s wife, is enough to overcome the power of the Ripper’s spirit in this version of the tale. In every instance this psychic transferal allows for the Ripper to bring his crimes into the Twentieth century; his Nineteenth century identity is supplanted by the modern vessels.

An episode of The Outer Limits, “Ripper” (aired 7 May 1999), also cast Jack as a disembodied alien spirit entity. In this instance, though, it is in habiting the women who eventually die by this possession, rather than any single male being responsible. This is one of the few SF portrayals of the Ripper actually shown in London 1888. Dr. Jack York, a disgraced physician, discovers that a strange entity is ripping its way out of women, creating the apparent mutilations recorded by the police. Jack becomes a prime suspect in the murders and is caught trying to ‘kill’ the alien while it still inhabited the body of Mary Kelly. Jack fails to stop the alien entity, and the dark final moments of the episode hint at a continuation of these killings in America. This inversion of Jack, from murderer to hero, allows our cultural memory of the Ripper to be turned on its head.


As far-fetched as many of these invocations of Jack the Ripper may seem, they have almost as much validity in the mind of the reader or viewer as those works of non-fiction; there is no Jack, so anyone can be Jack. His (or her) character is open to the public sphere for constant reinterpretation, shaping Jack into one of science fiction’s conventional tropes, a mythical tool that cannot shed its historical context, which keeps it connected to our reality via the shared knowledge of the audience. Jack the Ripper’s narrative history is set, but the endgame is still open to any writer. As long a Jack is given a name, a face, a motive, or simply a death, some explanation is better than the century of silence that has followed in the shadows of our culture since 1888.



Alexander, Karl. Time After Time (New York: Forge, 2010).
Time After Time. Directed by Nicholas Meyer. 1979.
Bloch, Robert. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Weird Tales (July 1943), pp. 83-95.
— “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Thriller. First broadcast 11 April 1961. Directed by Ray Milland.
— “A Toy for Juliette.” Dangerous Visions (London: Gollancz, 1967). Ed. Harlan Ellison.
— “Wolf in the Fold.” Star Trek. First broadcast 22 December 1967. Directed by Joseph Pevney.
Bloom, Clive. “The Ripper Writing: A Cream of a Nightmare.” Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History. Eds. Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
Bolchert, Robert. “The Ripper.” Kolchak: The Night Stalker. First broadcast 13 September 1974. Directed by Allen Baron.
Connor, Michael. “The Strange Case of Jack the Ripper.” Quadrant (March 2010).
Coville, Gary and Patrick Lucanio, Jack the Ripper: His Life and Crimes in Popular Entertainment (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1999).
Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: HarperPress, 2011).
Gough, Alfred. “A Rip in Time.” Timecop. First broadcast 22 September 1997. Directed by Allan Arkush.
Ingalls, Don. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” Fantasy Island. First broadcast 29 January 1980. Directed by Michael Vejar.
“Jack the Ripper (Character).” Internet Movie Database. <http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0031664/?ref_=fn_ch_ch_1&gt;. Accessed 7/20/16.
Langford, David. “Jack the Ripper.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 3rd ed. Eds. John Clute and David Langford. <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/jack_the_ripper&gt; Accessed 06/28/14.
Maslin, Janet. “Movie Review: Time After Time.” The New York Times (28 September 1979). <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E02E7D8168E732A2575BC2A96F9C94890D6CF&gt; Accessed 10/19/14.
Moffat, Steven. “A Good Man Goes to War.” Doctor Who. First broadcast 4 June 2011. Directed by Peter Hoar.
Nickel, John-Paul. “Endless.” Warehouse 13. First broadcast 19 May 2014. Directed by Jack Kenny.
Odell, Robin. Ripperology: A Study of the World’s First Serial Killer and a Literary Phenomenon (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006).
Richards, Justin. “The Wax Princess.” Jago & Litefoot. Series 7. Big Finish, 2014.
Sutton, Thomas C and Marilyn Sutton. “Science Fiction as Mythology.” Western Folklore, vol. 28, No. 4 (October  1969), pp 230-237.
Straczynski, J Michael. “Comes the Inquisitor.” Babylon 5. First broadcast 25 October 1995. Directed by Michael Vejar.
Wittenberg, David. Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).



Modernism without Confirmation: The Exclusion of W. Somerset Maugham from Modernist Canon

W Somerset Maugham Books
The Novels of William Somerset Maugham

Was it because his books were bestsellers? Was it because Virginia Woolf never invited him to tea with the rest of the Bloomsbury set and never had his work published by Hogarth Press? Was it because he tempered liberalism with the unpopular idea of patriotism? Was it because his prose did not require a road map and a shovel to decipher its meaning?

Without a doubt, Maugham’s first novel, Liza of Lambeth, is in the tradition of the Realists, depicting unrelenting poverty and consequence. But his later – and more successful – work shifted to those characters of middle class aspiration and upper class desperation. Disaffected with society, disturbed by colonialism, and detached from the past, Maugham’s oeuvre embraced those same themes as his contemporaries, yet remains conspicuously absent from most Modernist study (and anthology) because his style is not considered as abstract/experimental. Gore Vidal accuses the author of an “unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way”[1] because Maugham’s prose was without nuance. But should stylistic metaphor alone account for defining Modernism?

Elizabeth Bowen accused him of being “without pity” in his treatment of words and the world.[2] It is true that Bowen’s characters were often pitiable creatures in a cruel world, but Modernism must surely have meant more than empathic treatment of those swallowed by the world. If Maugham’s characters appear cold, it’s because he himself was known to be icy and aloof, hiding his own homosexuality and pained feelings of being unloved. Virginia Woolf said the Modernist author is most inspired by “the dark places of psychology”[3] and there is no doubting that Maugham was a tormented individual whose psyche spilled over into his characters.

In the 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, Maugham takes an almost Postmodern and experimental turn by including himself in the narrative (not metaphorically, but as himself). But Maugham also had experience in playing himself – an author – when he worked as a spy for the British SIS between the wars. This later became the character Ashenden, British spy, a dapper, aloof fellow preceding the development of James Bond. Many other Modernists included autobiographical elements of their lives into their works – from Woolf’s family holidays in To the Lighthouse to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so accusations of too-much autobiography should not be cause for exclusion.

Maugham’s work on the twilight of colonialism (i.e. The Moon and Sixpence and The Painted Veil) is no different in theme from, say, Heart of Darkness or A Passage to India. His sweeping commentary on the frippery of wealth and shallowness of society (à la Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge) echoes the same as The Good Soldier (Ford) or Howard’s End (Forester). Maugham is not merely imitating these other works, but publishing contemporaneously the same social stumbles and evolutions seen by his peers, whether they counted him as such or not.

If I have a contention here at all, it is that Maugham has been unjustly omitted from the Modernist canon by those contemporaries who defined themselves by their work as much as their social circle, and Maugham felt much the same about his exclusion from Bloomsbury.[4] Flipping through the indexes of four different general academic books on Modernism, not one mentions Maugham, where Hastings’s biography of him doesn’t miss any of his contemporaries. While his works mostly remain in print (Vintage being the primary publisher) and Hollywood will pick them up from time to time for star-studded period piece, Maugham seems in danger of disappearing from academic study and reading lists, relegated to the shadows of his fellow Modernists.


[1] Gore Vidal, February 1, 1990, The New York Review of Books, 10

[2] https://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0217/p14s02-bogn.html

[3] Peter Childs, Modernism, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 80.

[4] Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, New York: Arcade, 2009, p. 360.

The Hollow Earth is for Children: The Rise of Terra Cava Juvenile Literature

It’s a setting in young adult literature that has crept into twenty-first century works almost unnoticed, but since the year 2000 there have been numerous stories set in underground realms. The Underland Chronicles, the Tunnels Series, the City of Ember quartet, and more stand-alone works use the terra cava chronotope as a space in which to set the adventures of young protagonists stumbling through dark caves as treacherous as puberty.

The White DarknessThe Michael Printz award-winning novel The White Darkness (2005) by Geraldine McCaughrean is the only modern work that references John Symmes’s theory, starting with the narrator Symone “Sym” Wates whose very name invokes John Cleves Symmes. The titles itself and unfolding plot parallels Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Accompanying her slightly mad Uncle Victor to the Antarctic in search of Symmes’s Hole in the Pole, Sym comes to realize that her uncle, like Kurtz, is quite mad. There is no polar opening to a subterranean world. Uncle Victor plans to leave Sym in his theorized hollow civilization, one he envisions as “more advanced” scientifically and politically (p 272), to be a permanent settler. Sym laments, “I thought Uncle Victor loved me. But he only wants to drop me in a hole in the ground – sacrifice me to the great god Symmes. It’s Symmes He loves. The whole idea of Symmes” (p 277). The white darkness takes Uncle Victor into a crevasse from which there is no return, but Sym resists and fights her way to rescue.

This is the one instance where no magic, no extraordinary science, actually exists in YA terra cava. Symmes’s theory and the history of Antarctic exploration are instead a framework for Sym’s journey, physically and spiritually. “Literature for children has to tread a careful path between a need to be sufficiently overreferential in its intertextual gap filling so as not to lose its readers, and the need to leave enough intertextual space and to be sufficiently stylistically challenging to allow readers free intertextual interplay” (p 135).[1] Young adult readers are presented with nineteenth century work in a twenty-first century narrator to whom they might relate.

In the opposite vein, in the realm of magical realism, John “Captain Jack Harkness” Barrowman and his sister Carole Barrowman developed the fantastically skilled animist twins Matt and Emily Calder in the simply-titled Hollow Earth (2012). More fantasy than science fiction, it takes a more ethereal approach to the terra cava, like Etidorhpa over a century before. The Hollow Earth is “a supernatural space in the earth, a shadowy home for all the demons and monsters ever imagined” (p 57). Keeping these imagined nightmare creatures locked in the Hollow Earth is the mission of the eponymous secret society. It is not pure fantasy, as like Harry Potter the story is set in contemporary Britain; the narrative instead simply adds another layer to our known reality. “Magic realism, with its intrusion of the fantastic into real-world scenarios, presents an eloquent argument for the reinvigoration of animistic thinking in a world disenchanted by scientific explanation” (p 80). [2] Where animism is defined as the belief in souls occupying the universe beyond just human bodies, the twins are cast as Animare, “a supernaturally gifted artist who has such a powerful imagination that they can alter reality when they paint or draw. Simply put, if they choose to do so, an Animare can animate their own art” (pp 75-6). The Calder twins give soul to the world around them via imagination. The title is drawn from a factionalized Scottish artist called Duncan Fox, whose painting “Hollow Earth” is “said to depict the entrance to a mythical purgatory where all the beasts and demons ever imagined are trapper” (p 239). The nefarious plans of the Hollow Earth Society are to use the twins to open the gateway to this realm and unleash all the horrors of imagination onto the world. As must always happen, the heroes win, but at a cost, including the disappearance of their mother.

Another recent entry in the field is Emilie & The Hollow World (2013) by Martha Wells. Embracing the more recent fashion of steampunk and littered with a smattering of magic, Emilie’s world is not our own. Emilie serves as the reader’s avatar, learning at the same time we are, when she accidentally ends up on a ship bound for the hollow earth in search of the expedition leader’s missing father. (Paternal absence becomes a recurring theme.) Reviews of the novel tend to avoid any commentary on setting, focusing instead on other shortcomings.[3],[4] Though couched in the style and theme of Jules Verne, Verne would never have approved of such an unscientific novel. And by being set in a fantasy world entirely removed from our contemporary one, Symmes and his cohort are excluded from any mention in the narrative.

Suzanne Collins’s “Underland Chronicles” (2003-2007) is not as well-known as The Hunger Games, but many of the themes of responsibility, warfare, and the burdens of heroism remain. Gregor, the Overlander, and his toddler sister Boots fall through a vent in the laundry room in the basement of their New York City apartment and into the Underland. Like many previous terra cava narratives, this is a land inhabited by gigantic and ancient flora and fauna, and human refugees who fled the surface centuries earlier (like Beneath Your Very Boots). Generations deprived of natural sunlight are now devoid of melanin and speak archaic English. Gregor and his family are tied into the old prophecies of Bartholomew of Sandwich, the founder of Regalia. While the series is intended for younger readers than The Hunger Games, many critics have noted the same progression of protagonist, from innocent child to traumatised warrior who no longer feels at home in any world. Gregor, having survived the prophecy of his death, is deposited back on the Overland, unsure how to fit back in to normal life.

Perhaps the most successful juvenile terra cava series is “Tunnels” by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, stretching over six books. [It was my nephew, of all people, who alerted me to the series while briefing me about his after-school leisure reading. His mother was having difficulty getting copies of the books for him to read because they were constantly checked out of the school and local libraries, hinting at the popularity of the series.] The writing duo employ the semi-permeable Earth premise rather than one of Symmes Holes. But like the “Underland” books, it starts with the case of a missing father and Will Burrows (the name no doubt an allusion to the subject matter), with help from his friend Chester, stumbling upon an underground city, the Styx, and a conspiracy to destroy the humans who live on the surface.

The tunnels do eventually lead to the centre of the Earth in book 3, Freefall. The descriptors are similar to those in Nineteenth century terra cava: low gravity (p 24), abundant fungus (the entire place is fungi), an interior sun (p 548), and once-extinct creatures. To keep juvenile readers in the metatextual setting, Will’s father takes a short detour into the history of hollow earth theory, starting with Edmund Halley’s proposal and then Symmes’s revival of it, and even Dr Raymond Bernard: “Back in the sixties, some oddball professor claimed that a technologically advanced race inhabited the inner world, and that they had flying saucers” (p 491). This information is not necessary to the narrative, but as the world the authors have created has some basis in the real world, it serves almost as an educational tool, or at least a trivia question that might one day prove useful.

Children and young adults reading these narratives are not going to know the source of the terra cava setting (unless they are frequenters of this blog, or possess a masochistic interest in obscure Nineteenth century American novels) but the success and preponderance of these novels also indicates that they are not perturbed by the possibility of an interior world. But like the best young adult bildungsroman, the adventures had by the juvenile characters mature them in mind and body.

[1] Wilkie, Christine. “Relating Texts: Intertextuality” in Understanding Children’s Literature, ed. Peter Hunt. London: Routledge, 1999. Pp 130-137.

[2] Coates, Karen. “Fantasy” in The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature, ed. David Rudd. London: Routledge, pp75-86.

[3] North, Phoebe. “Review: Emilie and the Hollow World by Marth Wells.” <http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/emilie-and-the-hollow-world-by-martha-wells/>  Accessed 10/23/17.

[4] Roy, Leila. “Ride a Magical Submarine to ‘Emilie and the Hollow World’.” <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/ride-magical-submarine-emilie-and-hollow-world/> Accessed 10/23/17.

REVIEW – “Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story”

gernsbackCNL_180_thumb[Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story by Luc Henzig, Paul Lesch, and Ralph Letsch (2010) Mersch, Luxembourg : Centre national de littérature]

For those not lucky enough to live in close proximity to Luxembourg, or fortunate enough to have the means of reaching Luxembourg, you might have missed out on the Centre national de littérature’s exhibition on the life and works of Hugo Gernsback,  celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth in that country. This book is a gallery guide to the massive collection of Gernsback relics amassed from around the world to put forth a chronology of an amazing life. Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story is a two-dimensional recreation of artefacts to enlighten those interested in the life of the man who give the science fiction genre its moniker, with detailed commentary about the phases of his life and impact on science fiction.

Half of the book is in English, etl’autre moitié du livre, en français, s’adresse aux Luxembourgeois. Readers picking it up should not expect that every page is going to fill them with insights into Greenback’s life: only half of them will. And half of those pages are not filled with narration or analysis, but reproductions of photographs, letters, manuscripts, magazine covers, articles, etc. Fortunately, these are presented in high resolution colour, and not just the occasional glossy page with a hastily snapped photo of the exhibit. Great care has been taken in the layout and presentation of the evidence of Gernsback’s life and accomplishments, complicated by the necessity of bilingual explanatory notations. Readers might at first be confused, though, by the circled numbers inserted throughout paragraphs. Only by flipping ahead in the text will they realise these are references to the numbered artefacts, or the source of the information in the absences of a visual reproduction.

It should be noted that this is not an academic text, proposing no new theory or perspective on Gernsback beyond shedding ‘a constructive light on the merits of a man hitherto little known’ (p. 9), or at least, ‘little known’ in Luxembourg, Gernsback having moved to the US at the age of twenty. His early family life in Luxembourg is given in great detail, including several photos and letters from his descendents never before publicly exhibited. At the same time, even the exhibitors acknowledge a certain lack of documentation, such as a degree certificate to verify if a young Gernsback (never a diligent student) actually graduated from the Technikum in Bingen, Germany, which he attended in 1901 and 1902. One of the downsides to the reproduced letters and certificates from early in his life is that many of them are in French, without translation in the notes, leaving Anglophone speakers at a loss as to what exactly is being presented.

The American portion of Gernsback’s life in broken into two distinct parts: his contributions to promoting science and technology, and his literary endeavours in the nascence of science fiction. While the authors/exhibitors have been thorough in their chronological narrative, the redundancy of the introduction to each section of ‘Technology and Science Enthusiast’ becomes almost painful, five times beginning with the words ‘When Hugo Gernsback was born in 1884,’ (pp. 51-56) as if the reader is in danger of forgetting this pertinent information. This section also feature nearly 70 exhibits, with the unfortunate result that the guide reproduces less than half of them, giving readers only a source for the information, but not the evidence itself, which is at times frustrating. The subsequent section, ‘Father of Modern Science Fiction’, is dedicated to Gernsback’s publishing endeavours, starting with science and technology journals, and then moving into science fiction magazines. Here we find reproductions of letters, stories and poems by Gernsback, including the unpublished ‘Spring Poem’ from 1907:

First of all it’s raining cats,
And the cold makes die the rats.
Zephyr winds and balmy breeze
Are so frosty that we sneeze. (119)

One is left to wonder how Gernsback would feel to have such work posthumously made available to the public.

The last pages are given over to Gernsback’s legacy, including the development of the Hugo Awards for science fiction and the growth of ‘fandom’, employing the broadest definition of that word to encompass the whole of the genre. Gernsback’s efforts to create the first science fiction ‘fandom’ by incorporating the Science Fiction League in 1934 helped to revive the fading readership of Wonder Stories by making it the league’s official publication. Gernsback’s efforts in early sf had clear monetary rewards. Other fanzines rose to prominence, though, and are explored in this section, expanding the exhibit’s perspective beyond Gernsback to look at these ‘zines and letters regarding their contributors, including artefacts from H.P. Lovecraft.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in this book (or gallery catalogue as it should more properly be called) is its apparent lack of availability. Gernsback scholars or enthusiasts eager to take advantage of the rare materials presented here will find themselves looking under proverbial rocks to find a copy. But if they can, they may find a new critical insight into Gernsback that has hitherto gone unexplored.

REVIEW – “The Unincorporated War”

The Unincorporated War[The Unincorporated War – By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (Tor, 2010, 462pp, $25.99)]

Corporate greed, political unrest, epic battles, warring AI programmes, good guys who say all the right things and bad guys who do all the wrong things. For those readers looking to revisit the fascinating drama and intrigues of corporate earth in Dani and Eytan Kollin’s first book, The Unincorporated Man, there is some disappointment to be had in their second foray into the incorporated world, which takes a sharp left turn into space opera and choral preaching.

The sequel, The Unincorporated War, picking up a year on from the events of the last book, is not so much the socio-economic gedankenexperiment of its predecessor, exploring what it means for individuals to be incorporated and owned. To be fair, it would be far less interesting to rehash the same ideas over another 400+ pages, but the space operatic-styling and larger cast of characters in this new book seem so far removed from the tight focus of the former as to leave readers wondering if they have picked up a novel from the same authors, or been led down a similar path as the viewers of Troll 2, mistakenly thinking there might be some connection to the first.

Certainly it is not fair to compare The Unincorporated War to what the internet has deemed to be the worst movie ever made, but as a follow-up to a unique novel that made a splash when first published and went on the win the Libertarian Futurist Society’s 2010 Prometheus Award, the plot comes up short and frayed. Justin Cord is back as the “Unincorporated Man” – this time as President of the Outer Alliance that oppose incorporation – full of twenty-first century capitalist zeal for freedom and democracy, and always with a rousing speech on hand to reinforce it. His wife, Neela Harper, so integral to the previous tale, is quickly sidelined into an uninspiring, almost needless thread that is given little attention. Arch-nemesis Hektor Sambianco remains the devious, power-hungry, self-aggrandising character (who also always has a good speech on hand) that he was in the first book, now President of the United Human Federation. If anyone is looking for serious character development, or even realistic dimensionality beyond that of the pulps, the disappointment will continue. As well, the voices of these characters that were so integral to the first story are diluted among the multitude of other observers and participants, several of them minor actors from the first novel being granted new rolls and specialities in order to shoehorn them into the plot. With just a little review of the events that came previously scattered through the first chapter, The Unincorporated War ploughs ahead on a tangent that almost leaves it a standalone book.

The corporate and political machinations and questions of individual freedom are harped upon at length once again, but also supplemented significantly with war councils and real-time space battles and strategising reminiscent of David Weber’s Honor Harrington work, though with far less attention to technical details that make warfare in space possible. Without a great deal of explanation, a former corporate attorney and antagonist for Justin in the first novel reappears as a brilliant naval tactician, who not once, but repeatedly, steals fleet ships from the Earth navy to supplement the Alliance’s hodgepodge of vessels. Recognising that too many plot conveniences to keep the Outer Alliance from falling to superior forces would probably not go unnoticed by readers, the Kollins make use of the secretly sentient avatars (thought only to be neural interfaced digital assistants to their human companions) by employing them as clandestine assistants in the war effort.

Among the most interesting characters in the novel, the avatars are becoming more human – in all of the wrong ways – as they evolve, including fear, susceptibility to propaganda, the use of torture and murder. Barely utilised in the first book – the avatars’ sentience and semi-control over human affairs taking a flying leap over the proverbial shark half way into that novel – they are front and centre in The Unincorporated War, embroiled in a civil war between the corporate-loyal and unincorporated-loyal AIs, the latter led by Justin Cord’s own avatar, Sebastian. The antagonist AI programme is Alphonse, who wants to expose the sentience of the avatarity to humanity and fights on the side of the corporations. Rather than applying logic to this choice, Alphonse is portrayed as having gone mad by splitting his programme too many times and rules the others in the Neuro-network through fear and the horrific manipulation of their base codes. Avatar civilisation itself, with its own laws and customs, mythologies and procreation, would have made for an interesting novel without being forced to mesh with the human events. The battles fought in space between human star ships are paralleled by soldier avatars fighting their mutated kin in cyber-space. Essentially the same story of politics, war, loss and betrayal is being twice told, once from the perspective of the human civil war, and once from the avatarity conflict.

All philosophising is not abandoned in favour of pugilism, though, as the Kollin brothers do bring up religion – or nearly lack thereof – in a human society whose technological achievements have essentially eliminated death. In the first novel, a portion of the blame for the twenty-first century’s collapse is placed on religion, thereby engendering an innate distrust of people of faith. Also, nanotechnology and reanimation technology have removed the necessity of having to consider an afterlife for one’s soul, with the result that religion has been relegated to the fringes – literally – of human society, in the outer solar system, forced to unite together for survival in religious enclaves when followers fled Earth. Religion begins to reassert itself, though, in response to the unchecked power of the corporations and Hektor Sambianco, and anyone else who thinks that they can decided what is right or wrong, engaging in the classical argument of moral relativism. Faith is considered a psychosis in the captured Alliance personnel, replaying the old trump card that those who know God are psychologically more powerful than the rest of us. The POWs’ own minds resist attempted neural reprogramming (“psych audits”) to eliminate faith and it kills them, but no physiological or psychiatric explanation is forthcoming as to why faith alone is the exception to psych audits, thus rendering the plot line little more than apparent wish-fulfilment. Nor do the authors fully enumerate why the stigma against religion is so rapidly repealed other than the fact that there is a war on and thousands are dying who cannot be reanimated. The substitution of over-worn arguments on the need for human faith in place of the discussion on incorporation and personal freedoms lends little to the development of the narrative.

What so distinguished the first book was its intriguing idea of people who, from birth, do not own themselves, but are bought and sold as stock with their “investors” collecting a percentage of their earnings. What kind of life do these people lead? What works in this system, and what does not? The Unincorporated War spends little time continuing to explore these questions. Incorporation no longer has meaning for Justin and the Outer Alliance beyond that of an epithet. As for Hektor, his character is only capable of pushing the limits of all that is wrong with the system by denying suffrage to those who hold a minority interest in themselves, and drafting them into the war. Beyond that, this unique sf economic concept is given little further consideration.

The politic philosophy of The Unincorporated War and its predecessor are a research paper unto themselves, as the authors seem to be extolling Heinlein libertarianism, yet also the virtues of a not-too-limited government and taxation, free market capitalism, and the moral turpitude of unchecked corporations that built the greatest civilisation humanity has ever known. A reader can be forgiven for being left a little unsure of what to believe the preferential structure for this society should be. The present situation of the global economy and continuing political discourse about the power wielded by financial institutions makes the Kollins’ lack of reflection on contemporary issues all the more disappointing. Nor is subtlety amongst the tools of Kollin brothers; as long as the reader does not mind having long dialogues and heavy-handed metaphors about what is good and what is bad constantly smashed into their brain via the optic nerve because another battle is on the next page, then all will be well.

Despite any narrative deficiencies, readers who have stuck it out for the first two books will undoubtedly go on to read the next book after the cliff-hanger ending.  Yes, the book actually ends with the words “To be continued.” Rather like The Empire Strikes Back or The Matrix: Reloaded, the middle child of a three part symphony that started out looking like the first movement was a visionary standalone of intriguing concepts, suffers from the growing pains of continuing the story and setting up dark twists and hopeless situations for the characters to overcome (possibly) in the third movement. We can only hope that once The Unincorporated Woman makes its appearance that it will reignite the uniqueness and excitement of the first book.

A Brief Lecture on Mark Twain: “Cannibalism in the Cars”

There is not a great deal that we can say about Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) that he did not say about himself. The first volume of his autobiography is 743 pages. There are two more to follow. Per his wishes, and in classic Twain style, he ordered that his complete work on himself not be published until a century after his death. So I hope you have some idea by what I mean when I say it is utterly impossible to cover even an iota of Twain’s life, accomplishments and philosophy here in 20 minutes.

It is funny that we find ourselves sitting here today to discuss classics by the likes of Mark Twain. As he put it: ‘’Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read’. But we do still read him, at every level, and continue to enjoy him, because what Twain wrote, his observations of man, religion, politics and society, even over a century later still rings true with us.

But, to start at the beginning, to ensure you leave here with enough information to possibly win a themed pub quiz, Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 under the glow of Halley’s Comet, in the state of Missouri along the Mississippi river, which would play such a pivotal role in his life, even after he settled in New York. He was the sixth of seven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood, and when his father died of pneumonia when he was only 11, young Sam became a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches. At the age of 18, Sam left Missouri, travelling around the eastern United States and working in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City and Saint Louis. In the evenings he would sit in public libraries, educating himself. ‘Don’t let schooling interfere with your education’ is one of his oft remembered parables.

While travelling to New Orleans on a steamboat, Sam became enthralled with the idea of being a steamboat pilot. He spent more than two years learning two thousand miles of the Mississippi river, its currents and banks and inlets, before earning his license in 1859. This is where we finally get to start calling Sam by the name he is best known by: Mark Twain, ‘mark twain’ being old steamboat slang for a river depth of two fathoms, or 12 feet. This is also the time when Twain confronts one of his first great tragedies, the death of his little brother Henry, whom he had convinced to join him on the river, in 1858 on the steamboat Pennsylvania when it exploded. Twain claims to have foreseen his brother’s death a month earlier in a dream, and this spurred a lifelong interest in parapsychology. Though guilt-ridden, Twain carried on as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, when travel along the Mississippi river was greatly hampered.

Though rumoured to have spent two weeks as a Confederate soldier (although Twain would later claim to be a staunch abolitionist) he had little interest in dying for anyone and Twain took off for the unsettled Western frontier, joining his brother Orion in the Nevada territory. Failing as miner of silver, Twain took up work at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he started to write humorous accounts of his travels to the West, and signing them with the nom de plume by which we know him so well.

He moved on to San Francisco, California in 1864 and a year later wrote his first nationally successful story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. In 1866 he was sent o Hawaii as a travel report, and in 1867 to the Mediterranean. Initially, Mark Twain’s fame came not from his fiction, but from his comedic accounts of his travels, which were consumed by the American public. When he returned to the United States, the Scroll and Key Society of Yale University made him an honorary member. Twain was not yet 33, but already a nationally renowned writer.

By February of 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon (from a wealthy, liberal family) and settled down in Buffalo, New York, then Hartford, Connecticut, after the couple’s only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria at 19 months. Twain would go on to outlive two of his three daughters, and his wife Olivia, which probably what prompted him to one say: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ And for all of his humour, Mark Twain was indeed a sad man, who knew a lifetime of sorrows, and is said to have been depressed for much of his later years. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, right when he said that he would: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” He died within 24 hours of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. The nation mourned his passing, and his surviving daughter placed a twelve foot long (id est: ‘mark twain’) marker at his grave. In his lifetime he championed abolition, suffrage for women, civil rights (going so far as to putting at least two African Americans through university), was an ardent anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist, and always with humour did he remind his readers of the many failings of man, god, and the government.

‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.’

Mark Twain’s humour is what he is most remembered for. Among his many quotable quotes (and Twain is perhaps one of the most quoted of any American in history, with several web pages dedicated just to his clever quips) Twain once said ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Comedy has the power to topple the powerful. Humour is a hallmark of American politics, and no one did it better than Mark Twain: ‘The political…morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.’ He had little regard for U.S. politicians, paying them the backhanded compliment that ‘we have the best government money can buy’, and marked that ‘it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.’ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to such comedic luminaries as Tina Fey and George Carlin who frequently target the vagaries and hypocrisies of politics: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ Nothing better embodied this mordant view of American politics than his short story “Cannibalism on the Cars”, in which men stranded on a snow-bound democratically select who it to be eaten.



I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:

“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”

My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,

“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”

I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.


“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.

“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.

“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.

“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.

“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.

“The eternal night – it surely seemed eternal to us – wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.

“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.

“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.

“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.

“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.

“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’

“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’

“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’

“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’

“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’

“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.

“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’

“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’

“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘

“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘

“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’

“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.

“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘

“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’

“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’

“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]

“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.

“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.

“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.

“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.

“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”

“Do you mean to tell me that–”

“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”

“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”

“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–”

“Relict of–”

“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”

He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!

I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”

“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”

I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.








Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.


The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.


[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

Losing Shakespeare: Memories of Lost Culture in Apocalyptic Fictions

The fact is, Shakespeare was not sectarian; he pleaded nobody’s mission, he stated nobody’s cause. He has written with a view to be a mirror of things as they are; and shows the office of the true poet and literary man, which is to re-create the soul of man as God has created it, and human society as man has made it.
George Dawson (1821-1876), Shakespeare and Other Lectures

(Updated from previous post, “A Bard for the End of the World“)

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

This paper is not about Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or life; this is about SHAKESPEARE, the name said and written without any need for introduction or explanation; the noun that invokes a sense of Western civilisation more than all Greek philosophers combined. This is Shakespeare not as subject, but object. To invoke a mental image of the Bard of Avon is to create metaphorical parallels between high art, culture and erudition; one never says ‘Shakespeare is like-‘, but rather ‘Such-and-such is like Shakespeare.’ It is this immovable position as cultural touchstone that makes Shakespeare a reference point for the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story, allowing us to measure what has remained and what has been lost. If one were to ask a library search engine to find articles linking the terms ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Apocalypse’, the results would be a hundred different views interpreting the apocalypse through Shakespeare. I aim to invert the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare through the spectre of an apocalypse?

Ben Jonson called Shakespeare the “soul of the age”, and then amended “not of an age, but for all time”.[2] It is in this spirit that I examine Shakespeare as one of the theoretical ‘survivors’ of an end-of-civilisation scenario. Curious about the real life implications of preserving Shakespeare in the event of catastrophe, I reached out to other sources to uncover the lengths to which some have gone to preserve – or pervert – Shakespeare as a cultural icon. Dawson’s quote refers to Shakespeare’s recreation of ‘human society as man has made it’, and in the centuries after Shakespeare, the Bard has become an inseparable part of that society he created.

Authors and filmmakers have devised multiple scenarios in which human existence is pushed to the brink of extinction, but they take their culture – and their Shakespeare – with them. I have narrowed these scenarios down to three categories: The Destroyed World, The Departed World, and the Destroyed Word (indicating not a collapse of life, but of letters). And in each of these I have discovered real-world evidence of similar endeavours to preserve Shakespeare in uncertain and desperate times, which adds credence to the authors’ motivations for mentioning Shakespeare (whether they were conscious of them or not) in their works. Shakespeare and the apocalypse have been linked before, as in R. D. Christofides’s study Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture: “We are still obsessed with apocalypses today. Current cultural and political debates often return to the future of the planet… Humans will destroy Earth. Humans will leave Earth. Humans will be annihilated.”[3] Shakespeare’s tragedies often referenced biblical destruction and salvation; now Shakespeare is an object of human destruction and salvation.

Derrida helped to define this sense of historic preservation in his paper “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” (Diacritics, 1995), which Veronica Hollinger brilliantly incorporated into her article “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”: “What suggests this conjunction of fiction and theory is the striking symmetry between the logic of the Derridean archive and science fiction’s… own temporal logic as a future-oriented genre. Each requires an imaginative commitment to a future that recasts the present as the past.”[4] Humans fret about the end of their existence – personally and culturally – and the cultivation of archives, like the squirrel’s cache of nuts, is meant to hold back the creeping winter of extinction. Popular culture and science fiction have conditioned us to believe that one of these seeds to be stored in our cultural archive is Shakespeare.

Destroying the World

“Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?”
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[5] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[6] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[7] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.

Departing the World

There is another kind of apocalypse, one that does not necessarily present its full horror to readers because the protagonists have been removed from it; it is the refugee’s tale, those that have left earth behind, and Shakespeare is among their last connection to the planet.

Jill Patton Walsh’s 1982 novella for young adults, The Green Book, follows a small group of colonists fleeing earth before an unidentified disaster destroys it, and they go on to settle on an alien world. Besides their various trials and tribulations, literature is a key subplot, or specifically, the lack thereof, as each person was only permitted to bring one book, and the adults find themselves rapidly losing the memory of their cultural heritage, unable to retell to their children the stories on which they grew up. The Guide laments, “Not one Shakespeare… Among us all, not one”, and they spend the evening trying to recall Hamlet. The Green Book is written for children, readers who probably only know of Shakespeare as a name, but not the works themselves. Walsh, as an adult, knows better, though, and through her story is subtly conditioning children to understand that Shakespeare is important to their lives and is not something to be left behind forever.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy transports the Bard to our neighbouring planet as it is colonised by humans from all over the earth, yet Shakespeare is a cultural constant for all of them. The Odessa troupe travels the planet, putting on plays, including Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and Maya, one of the first settlers on Mars, criticises a young man for preferring the Restoration version of Lear: “Stupid child! We have told the truth tonight, that is what is important!” Keeping alive Shakespeare in his original form is important to Maya and the older settlers, the Shakespeare – unhappy endings and all – from their unhappy Earth. A young, happy Mars may want a happier Shakespeare, but it is a dishonest form of the Bard. For Nirgal, who was born on Mars, Shakespeare is one of his connections to his forbearers’ history. He grows up watching productions of Shakespeare, understanding the language, and yet when he finally visits earth in Blue Mars, an earth drowned by global warming, he find himself in Britain among people very difficult to understand: “Shakespeare’s plays had not prepared him for it.” For Nirgal, coming from another world, he believes the words of Shakespeare, having originated on earth, in England, should be universal. Time and language have moved on, and for the people of a foundering world, there is no time for Shakespeare; he is preserved on Mars now, not just in books but actively on stage.

The colonial ark ship Godspeed in Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy also carries Shakespeare with them: “The Bard wrote about star-crossed love, but I doubt he ever realized his works would one day be soaring through the stars” one of the characters notes. Looking over Romeo and Juliet, then looking at a ship-bound populace that reproduces only during an artificially induced ‘season’, the narrator wonders “How can I argue that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t really show love to a group of people who have no concept of what  love really is?”[8] To take Shakespeare from one planet to another, to ensure his survival along with humanity’s, is to serve as a reminder of what it means to be human. A copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets becomes a vital clue to the mystery surrounding the ship. Why use Shakespeare? Because what other work would one be certain was to survive removal from earth across three light years?

This is not without parallel in history; Alexis de Tocqueville noted the popularity of Shakespeare across America in the 1830s: “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” Shakespeare was brought to the US by colonists a century before, a reminder of their English roots and literary heritage. Similarly, Shakespeare found his way in the hands of British colonials to nearly every continent, shared around, translated, becoming a nearly universal symbol of humanity and the human condition. In the same way, science fiction sends its colonists into space, escaping a dying earth, with copies of the Bard.

Destroying the Word

A third type of apocalypse is not the destruction of the world, but culture as we know it, an apocalypse of art, literature, and history (what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. called “Cultural Literacy”). Dystopias are often examples of this fear, that the past we know might be erased, intentionally or inadvertently, and those treasures we hold up as the prizes of civilisation will fade away. Hollinger brings this to mind in her analysis of The Time Machine, when future humanity has no knowledge or point of reference for the archives contained in the Palace of Green Porcelain: “Only the Time Traveller, a stand-in for the implied late nineteenth-century reader, is present to acknowledge what has been lost of human history and culture.”[9] The reader of these science fiction dystopias in which the words of Shakespeare have lost their meaning.

Perhaps one of the most influential works on twentieth century dystopia is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, a story of a highly technological and rigidly controlled society whose inhabitants have no names, only numbers. D-503, the mathematician and engineer, states “Thank goodness…the antediluvian times of all those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys, or whatever you call them, are over.”[10] There is no direct knowledge of Shakespeare beyond his historical, poetic existence; he exists in this world only as an object of contempt. R-13, a ‘poet’ for the OneState who writes death sentences in verse, responds enthusiastically: “Yes, my dear mathematician… We are the happiest of arithmetical means… As you people put it: integrated from zero to infinity, from the cretic to Shakespeare. Right!” (p. 43). There can be no Shakespeare in the OneState because he would fall beyond standard deviation of averaged accomplishment; neither the moron nor the genius can be permitted to live, and so all great literature must be stripped from society to maintain the mean.

In Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) it is intended to be the supreme irony that John the Savage, raised in the uncivilised zone of the Reservation, is the only character familiar with Shakespeare’s work. A world without Shakespeare is crushing for him, and no so-called civilisation in which he can tolerate living. Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the World State, has read Shakespeare – only as his rank permits, since the Bard is forbidden. Why: “Because it’s old… we haven’t any use for old things here.”[11] Like the colonists aboard Revis’s Godspeed, procreation is controlled by the state, and John’s attempt to share Romeo and Juliet with Helmholtz is a disaster, the latter laughing as he deems the play a “grotesque obscenity” (p. 187) with a “ridiculous, mad” premise (p. 188). When John and Helmholtz question Mond about writing something ‘new’ like Othello, the Controller states that such a production would be impossible to understand in the World State: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability” (226). Shakespeare is laid upon the sacrificial altar of progress, and with him, all those positive human values and emotions he expressed: love, romance, loyalty, bravery, etc.

The most recognisable imitation of Zamyatin’s We is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Not as far removed from the present as Zamyatin, Shakespeare plays a more recognisable part. Syme, the Newspeak philologist, tells Winston in a (disturbingly) gleeful moment that “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”[12] Orwell is to be bastardised by Big Brother’s regime, turned against himself; not merely lost, but corrupted beyond recognition. Appendix C states that “when the task [of translation] had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed” (p. 256). Which is the more desperate scenario: the Shakespeare lost to catastrophe, or the Shakespeare deliberately perverted? Orwell’s novel carries many messages about resisting the totalitarian state, the state that would morph your very language and thought process, and the use of Shakespeare as an example of this process – writing that should be more well-known than perhaps any other – is a deliberate metaphor for how deep the corruption of language and history goes.

Our history is rife with the banning of Shakespeare, from the Puritans to modern schools and libraries. These dystopias forbidding the reading the reading of his works are hyperboles with more than a grain – perhaps a bushel – of truth. Banning Shakespeare inherently gives Shakespeare cultural (and political) power, because there is no need to forbid something that is not a threat. Hitler knew that banning Shakespeare outright would not be effective, and instead appropriated and Nazi-ised the plays for political ends. Rodney Symington has written an entire book on the subject, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (2005). After Hitler’s ascension to power, a pamphlet called “Shakespeare – A German Writer” appeared, appropriating Shakespeare as a more German writer than English writer, and Hitler himself lifted the ban on performances of Shakespeare during the war.[13]


Modern literature is rife with images of Shakespeare, turning the Bard and his works into pop-culture products, and it is this status of global, popular culture, that inspires these various tales of apocalypse to integrate Shakespeare into their texts as a metaphor for better days. Shakespeare himself grew up in an age of cultural destruction as the reformation swept England. Christofides notes that “Not only did many… Catholic images survive the seal of sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts, they also held a firm place in the collective memory of local communities… Most of this iconography was destroyed as part of Reformation decrees to obliterate idolatrous imagery.”[14] Attempted destruction of centuries of cultural icons failed in Shakespeare’s time, and science fiction writers today envision a Shakespeare not so easily erased after all his centuries among us. No one ever suggests saving Jennifer Lee Carrol’s Interred with Their Bones from the ravages of radiation, nor do they invoke Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer as a symbol for lost greatness; but the source must be persevered to ensure that new cultural products inspired by Shakespeare might reknit society. In all of these examples, we never question why Shakespeare is present; to us it seems an obvious artefact. If the authors had elected instead to add, say, the canon of Tom Clancy or Stephanie Meyer, we would have instantly been flung out of the pretense of fiction and asked ourselves ‘Why in the world would someone take Twilight to another planet, and not The Tempest?’ There is an expectation that in the face of disaster and displacement we will save our most popular cultural icons, an expectation that seems reinforced by the real world examples cited.

Works Cited

Brin, David. The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985).
Christofides, R.M. Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum, 2012).
Heschel, Susanna.  “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013).
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932).
Orwell, George. 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949).
Pinciss, Gerald M. Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).
Revis, Beth. A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012).
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text).
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).


[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Gerald M. Pinciss, Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), p. 158.

[3] R.M. Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum , 2012), pp. xii-xiii.

[4] Veronica Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013), p. 242.

[5] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[6] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[7] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

[8] Beth Revis, A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012), p. 37.

[9] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 244.

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 43.

[11] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932), p. 225. All other citations in-text.

[12] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949), p. 47.

[13] Susanna Heschel, “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.

[14] Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse, p. xiii.

The (In)Cedible Sherlock Holmes: Ironic Belief and the Metanarrative of the Modern Pastiche

When Sherlock Holmes made his debut on the stage of late-Victorian London he was a figure distinctly born of his day – and still is, though in an ever-expanding literary universe of his peers. Arthur Conan Doyle kept the world of Sherlock Holmes quite separate from most of the individuals and events of his era; he believed his tales to be ‘distraction from the worries of life’ that existed in ‘the fairy kingdom of romance’ (Doyle, 2004: 249). Sherlock existed in a recognisable fin de siècle London, but he did not rub shoulders with celebrities like Oscar Wilde, or criminals like Jack the Ripper, figures we know to have existed in the same space-time continuum. Copyright prevented Sherlock from hunting Dr. Jekyll or joining Van Helsing. In the last century, though, as Sherlock-inspired literature has flooded the market, the greatest detective in the world has become something else: a literary spirit guide to characters – both factual and fictional – of the Victorian and Edwardian chronotope (Cawthorne, 2011: vii).

Exactly how we approach this fusion of worlds and characters is best described by Michael Saler’s idea of the ‘ironic believer’,1 those ‘who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence’ (Saler, 2003: 606) – a form of complicit Orwellian doublethink without the sinister implications. In this context, Saler was referring to contemporary readers of the Holmes stories, but this same idea of ‘double-minded awareness’ still applies to the modern readers of Holmesian pastiches. Dr. Freud never mentioned working with a British detective in his notes; Queen Victoria’s secretaries never recorded a visit with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes; and yet, these are perfectly natural figures to appear in new cases because they would surely have met Holmes had he been real. There is little need to stretch the imagination into accepting these meetings, and it was merely an act of discretion that kept Watson from making these cases public sooner. Writers wishing to engage Holmes with his other fictional contemporaries require a slightly different approach. In wanting Holmes to be real – even if we are fully aware that he is not – steps must be taken to submerge our imaginations into a unified world where Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Doyle and Stoker could be manifested. There must also be a reason for Conan Doyle/Watson to never have related these adventures before now either.

To this end, not all but many2 of the Holmes pastiches published in the last four decades have followed a two-fold reader-immersion process to satisfy the ironic believer: 1) in a preface, the author relegates the self to ‘editor’ of the found manuscript, and 2) Watson must explain the reason for narrative discrepancies (i.e. why did Robert Louis Stevenson never mention Sherlock Holmes in his account of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), and present the ‘true’ story to the reader, who has now had their reasons to disbelieve assuaged. A new literary world is created in these two types of stories, one in which Holmes is ‘real’, and so are his contemporaries. Umberto Eco describes the need for ‘a completely furnished world’ in order to transformation of a much-loved cultural object into a ‘cult object’ so that ‘fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.’ This is not enough, though, as fans must also be free ‘to break, dislocate, unhinge’ (Eco, 1986: 197-8) this created world, allowing them to explore it, to expand it, to reshape it according to their own designs and understandings of the world. Thus, we can take almost the whole of fin de siècle writing, then, and fold it into a universe where Sherlock Holmes is both the centre and the gatekeeper. As readers of these new Sherlock productions, we ‘believe’ – with mental tongue in cheek – that the Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with Jack the Ripper is the same Watson who told us about Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Baskerville hound. Each of these must be unified in the same man for readers intellectually, or else there is no consistency and no reason to believe.

With that caveat, it must be stated that there are several forms of Sherlock Holmes that do not fit under this study, such as the animated show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001) or the Young Sherlock Holmes series by Andrew Lane, which remove the character from his recognisable fin de siècle temporal situation. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons; he does not eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities; and Dr Watson is not a robot. These uses of Holmes break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place some firm boundaries to the time and space of Holmes and Watson.


The First Believers

The reason Sherlock Holmes can be written as a semi-corporeal figure of history is because of the uniqueness of his status as ‘the first character in modern literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious’ (Saler, 2003: 600). Even while Conan Doyle was still alive others were taking up the pen to write their own Holmes mysteries for print and stage. Readers in London wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes after the publication of ‘The Final Problem’. The character captured the imagination of the country, who viewed him as a man no different from themselves but for his preternatural cleverness. The stage actor William Gillette created the iconic image of a lean man in a deerstalker cap with a calabash pipe (not exactly how Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, but a convenient stage persona). Doyle cared so little for his creation that when Gillette wrote to Doyle asking permission to write his own plays for the character, Doyle responded ‘You may marry or murder or do what you like with him’ (Davies, 2001: 15). However, even Doyle himself acknowledged that it was Gillette who ‘changed a creature of thin air into an absolutely convincing human being’ (Green, 1983: 293). It is this willingness on Doyle’s part to relinquish his creation to the public sphere and give Holmes an avatar in Gillette which contributed to Holmes becoming such a well-known figure. Spreading Holmes beyond the confines of the Strand also gave him a greater presence in society, contributing to the belief that such a man could be real. Scholarly studies, articles and biographies filled in some of the gaps that Doyle left, carefully researched pieces that kept Holmes and Watson within the plausible world.

Many of these extended creations tried to work within the canon established by Conan Doyle; his own son, Adrian, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, wrote a collection of short stories, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1952), based upon the ‘unwritten’ cases. The end of each story is accompanied by a small clue from the canonical piece that inspired the story: ‘Among those unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’ This is a line from the short story ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, which led to Conan Doyle the Younger (and Carr) to write ‘The Highgate Miracle’, filling in this piece of back-story, a throw-away line fleshing out Holmes’s life, to be picked up later.

Other ostensibly ‘non-fiction’ pieces tried to accomplish the same world-building, such as William Baring-Gould’s Mr. Holmes of Baker Street (1962), which provided an entire history of Holmes, dating not just his canonical adventures, but the Adrian Conan Doyle/Carr tales and the theoretical family history of Holmes and Watson speculated upon by other writers of Sherlockiana. Many modern writers offer thanks to Baring-Gould and other Sherlockian scholars for their assiduous research, which help to maintain consistency in their own stories.3 Constancy is part of playing The Game of believing in Sherlock Holmes. Starting decades ago, and continued to the present, we find an assiduous cognition on the part of many authors that they are trespassing in an orchard not theirs, but nonetheless one in which they still hope to cultivate their own seedlings that will bear a fruit indistinguishable from the old trees. Consider the subtitle to Ernest B. Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology: ‘Commentaries on the Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson’ (1953); ‘Sacred’ is a very leading word choice, indicating a sacrosanct status of the canonical works, attributed not to Conan Doyle, but to Watson. These are not writing to be shoddily handled, but brought to life via the ‘love’ Eco stresses. The ‘ironic believer’ loves Holmes enough to play ‘The Game’ of pretending he is real, and stretching their imaginations to encompass both Conan Doyle’s canon and the works of Sherlockain scholars. All of this is enough to generate the ‘naïve believer’ who cannot distinguish between the fact and fiction of Holmes’s world.

The last quarter of the twentieth century, though, saw a change in this Sherlockian literary philosophy of not straying far beyond the canon, not the least of which can be credited to the handing off of the Conan Doyle estate from Adrian to his sister Jean in 1970 (who was far more lenient in allowing others to use her father’s work) and the gradual expiration of copyright on Sherlock Holmes, and, importantly, of other literary works. Holmes was no longer restricted to his own literary history, but was being given the opportunity to interact with history itself. The expansion of Holmes into the larger fin de siècle world was underway.


Sherlock + Historical Figures

The significance of this era can be seen in recent collections like Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013) edited by George Mann and Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman, which deliberately set out to bring fictional entities into the semi-real world of Holmes, and to fictionalise real individuals in the same setting. This is part of a pattern that has emerged since the 1974 publication of Nicholas Meyer’s international bestseller The Seven-per-cent Solution: the synthesis of the literary Sherlock Holmes with contemporary figures known to us in our own history. In the first of Meyer’s pastiches, Dr Watson and Dr Sigmund Freud conspire to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. A dumbfounded ‘What?’ is likely to be the reader’s initial reaction. What does it mean that Sherlock Holmes, a product of fiction for all intents and purposes, knew Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? Here we have two worlds colliding: Freud is being given a fictional life, and at the same time, Holmes is being pulled closer to our reality. There was even a letter sent to 221b Baker Street, inquiring as to the veracity of The Seven-per-cent Solution, to which the Abbey National Building Society (residents of that address as the time) responded quite simply: ‘Mr. Holmes has asked me to write to you with the information that The Seven-per-cent Solution is based on other stories and thus is authentic in one sense’ (Green, 1985: 231). Meyer’s work is being given authenticity ‘in one sense’ by the read secretaries assigned to answer the real letters sent to a fictional character at a real address. How does a man, a character, wrapped in their own solipsism, ever attain more reality than that? Even Dr John H. Watson has an author page on Amazon.com with over seventy titles accredited to him, giving him a digital existence; this is more than most (real) authors can claim. Despite modern creativity, though, the possibility of this continued existence goes back to the creator.

Conan Doyle cultivated a fertile field in which others could cavort with Holmes and Watson, leaving scattered clue for others to pick up on; ‘the giant rat of Sumatra’ and ‘the singular case of the aluminium crutch’, for example, remained behind after Conan Doyle died, and later writers could solve these cases to the best of their imaginations. This also allowed Watson the opportunity to leave behind ‘unpublished manuscripts’ (most in a tin box at Cox’s Bank) that others might find, edit, and publish themselves. Playing on the idea that Holmes was as real as his creator, and that Conan Doyle was only half of a literary team (Watson being the other half) then those works not passed on by Watson to his literary agent Conan Doyle are free to be ‘discovered’. Where the original stories employed no framing technique and simply launched into Watson’s narrative with a scene-setting paragraph, many of the modern novels must provide us with a frame that includes introductions by our so-called editors explaining how they came into possession of a Watsonian original. Watson himself must also leave us an explanation as to why these cases were not published after he recorded them. All of this is to engage the senses of the ironic believer: we know that it is not true, but we and the author engage in a game of mutual credulity. The author is taking Conan Doyle’s place, not necessarily as author, but as agent.

Meyer begins The Seven-per-cent Solution with a telling subtitle: ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ Meyer has disavowed himself of being the author of anything except the Forward and footnotes that permeate the tale and occasionally remove us from the nineteenth century and move us into twentieth century speculation. Meyer’s forward starts by addressing possible reader incredulity: ‘The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much scepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of one more Dead Sea Scroll than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer’ (Meyer, 1974: 9). He gives a history of the discovery of this manuscript, the efforts made to test its veracity, and his work at editing it for publication. The footnotes give either background to Sherlockian history (addressing references to other cases) or are Meyer engaging in speculation on the reader’s behalf: ‘Does this declaration suggest a reason why Watson never mentions his children, not even to state that he fathered any? N.M.’(Meyer, 1974: 121). Watson himself goes on to address readers and his reasons being persuaded that his particular tale ‘should never see the literary light of day’ (Meyer, 1974: 15). It is a two-step approach to fully submerge us into the universe controlled by Sherlock Holmes, one which continues to be emulated by other authors.

Meyer went on to pen two more novels, following his same pattern of two-fold immersion via editorial Forward and Watsonian Introduction: The West End Horror (1976) in which Holmes and Watson team with George Bernard Shaw to solve a series of murders linked to the West End stages, roping in additional cast in the likes of Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are more ‘real’ characters among the cast than fictional. The Canary Trainer (1993) does something even more interesting: while Holmes is playing dead after ‘The Final Problem’, he becomes a violinist in Paris under the name Sigerson (something alluded to upon his return to London and literature in ‘The Empty House’) charged by Irene Adler with protecting one Christine Daaé from a certain Phantom of the Paris Opera, whore the orchestra is under the conduction of none other than Gaston Leroux. Now we have both the historical figure and his fictional creations coalescing in the Holmes metaverse. There is nothing supernatural to this Phantom, nothing that lies outside the realm of plausible: Meyer must rationalise every act, every trick, even if we know that Gaston Leroux is real, and his characters are not. If Gaston Leroux is real, but Leroux is appearing via the narrative portal of Sherlock Holmes, then there is a sense of reality bestowed upon the latter as the narrator of a portion of Leroux’s life and the inspiration for his most famous work.

A year after The Canary Trainer Sam Siciliano would follow with his own take on Leroux’s characters encountering Holmes, publishing The Angel of the Opera (1994), ‘written’ not by Watson, but Holmes’s cousin Dr Henry Vernier, whose Preface indicates a need to present readers with a Holmes that is ‘much more interesting’ and ‘much deeper’ (Siciliano, 1994: 7) than Watson’s stories ever revealed. This is excusing Siciliano’s deviations from the Watsonian perspective and canonical interpretation of Holmes’s character, while allowing for the fusion of two fictions. It is also set in the period of Holmes’s ‘absence’ following the Reichenbach Falls incident, but as Dr Vernier frames the story, Watson was angry with Holmes and a ‘major row separated them for several years. Watson was so angry that he promptly invented Moriarty and killed off my cousin’ (Siciliano, 1994: 8). Another explanation for Moriarty, Holmes’s apparent death, and how Holmes filled the intervening time. ‘The Final Problem’ is possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) gifts that Conan Doyle gave to fans of Sherlock Holmes and their Game.

Now that Meyer had provided a (highly successful) precedence for this intertwining of the historical and fictional, there was no stopping the not hundreds, but thousands, of pastiches that followed suit. ‘Pastiche’ may not always be the right word, however, as even a century ago, there was an objection raised to Sherlockian enthusiast Vincent Starrett that using the word ‘pastiche’ because it ‘has a derogatory sense, one of caricature’ (Starrett, 1968: 198) – and Sherlock Holmes is not to be reduced to a mere caricature in the eyes of the believer. Calling these neo-Holmesian stories ‘imitations’, though, would be also be a somewhat inaccurate designation: many are extension in an ever-expanding universe that has formed around one character of immense plausibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly cover story on the resurgence of Holmes in the last decade, there is a discussion with Sherlockian enthusiast Otto Penzler, who estimates that ‘more than half of recent published works put Holmes into conflict with vampires, werewolves, supervillains, and in futuristic settings’ (Picker, 2010: 19). These ‘genre bending’ works violate the traditional canon and the self-contained world of realism that attracted early followers, who considered Holmes to be as real as – or more real than – Doyle himself. But with the fictionalisation of so many historical characters to incorporate them into the universe of Holmes, it has become a more common practice to add some weight of reality to fictional characters, even those that occupy the boarders of the fantastic.

There are several other ‘historical’ fictions that feature Sherlock Holmes. The Stalwart Companions (1978) by H. Paul Jeffers revels in nearly twenty pages of authorial framing to set up an adventure between Holmes and future US president Theodore Roosevelt, steeped in so much historical research Jeffers provides footnotes for readers as Meyer did. Daniel Stashower’s The Ectoplasmic Man (1985) is a found-manuscript about Holmes’s case with Harry Houdini, a real-life friend of Conan Doyle, until they had a falling out over the latter’s spiritualist beliefs. In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ Stashower continues to play the ironic believer’s game with his readers, mentioning ‘that contemptible faction that insists Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are a spurious lot, surely’ (Stashower, 1985: 13). Following the two-fold immersion, there is then the ‘Author’s Forward’ in which Watson confesses to not publishing the account because ‘Houdini, always secretive concerning the details of his private life, forbade me to write of the matter within his lifetime’ (Stashower, 1985: 17-8). For the uninitiated ‘naive believer’ in Sherlock Holmes, it is possible to continue naively believing that Holmes may have indeed interacted with these figures of his chronotope; but it takes the ‘ironic believer’ to move with Holmes into the realm of his fictional contemporaries.


Sherlock + Fictional Characters

These novels, which combine Holmes with his literary contemporaries, are more likely to fall under that category of ‘pastiche’ as Conan Doyle’s creation must blend with another author’s. In the use of historical figures, the reason for excluding Holmes from their history is usually of one of discretion on the part of the detective and his chronicler toward the client. However, the approach to literary figures of history via the portal of Sherlock Holmes is addressed in two paths: one is a route tempered by the balm of sympathetic understanding on Watson’s part to the real authors’ predicaments of relating tales seemingly too fantastic for belief; the other, on the reverse, is the charge of deliberate falsification of the facts on the part of the ‘original’ author. As an example of the first, Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (1979) uses Watson’s preface to state that

Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guise of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form. (Estleman, 1979: 21)

This is the reverse of the track Estleman uses in Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978). Watson also starts out by addressing the world of fiction which crosses into Sherlock’s world:

Before I begin my narrative, I feel that it is my duty to set the reader straight upon a number of erroneous statements made recently regarding the events therein described. I refer in particular to a surprising monograph which has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity since it first appeared some four months ago, authored by an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker, and entitled Dracula.

…Although Holmes does not agree, it is my belief that Professor Van Helsing induced Stoker to deliberately falsify the facts where our line of investigation transacted his, in order to build up his own reputation as a supernatural detective, and to invent entire episodes to explain the discrepancies. (Estleman, 1978: 15)

Playing into the reader’s role of the ironic believer, it is not enough to simply filch a well-known literary character: their creator must be incorporated into the story, acknowledging the very fact of their creation. Discrepancy between original narrative and Watsonian interpretation of events must be accounted for in order to engage us in The Game of being ironic believers. We know Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Dracula – we have for over a hundred years – and Sherlock Holmes never met them until now. ‘Irony’ tells us they are meeting now because copyrights have expired and it makes for an exciting story; ‘Believability’ tells us they are meeting because in a nineteenth century world threatened by vampires and mad scientists, only Sherlock Holmes can save us.

The character of Dracula has appeared in dozens of Holmes pastiches since, but there is an interesting study by Daniel Cottom about these two figures – and their creators – about their representative significance in the fin de siècle. In ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’ Cottom asserts

It need hardly be said that Stoker’s and Doyle’s protagonists never literally met, but this is not only because they happen to be fictional. The tales in which they live have incompatible premises, which represent two strains of the Gothic tradition. With Dracula we have an exploitation of otherworldy terrors in the tradition of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, whereas Holmes updates the heritage of Ann Radcliffe, whose works dramatize eerie mysteries that are then all submitted to a rational explanation as her narratives draw to a close. (Cottom, 2012: 537)

Cottom is speaking of these two figures never meeting in their contemporary composition as bohemian products, but does not take into account their present connections. The human mind desires patterns and unity, and that includes fictions. Dracula and Holmes were in the same fictional London at the same time and therefore may have met. Many other authors seem to think so in their own pastiches: Séance for a Vampire (1994) by Fred Saberhagen; Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula (2007) by Stephen Seitz; and Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Vampire (2012) by Dean P. Turnbloom meshes both the Dracula story and Jack the Ripper.

Dracula is not the only creature of questionable metaphysics Holmes encounters; the Martians of H.G. Wells have inspired more than one author. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) sees Holmes, Watson, and Doyle-creation Professor Challenger tackling the Martian invasion. Similar to Estleman’s use of criticism for Stoker, the Wellmans finish their account of extraterrestrial invasion with a letter from Watson to H.G. Wells, stating that the author ‘vastly exaggerated [his] own experiences, resorting sometimes to pure faking’ (Wellman, 1975: 224). Our role as ‘ironic believer’ is not to believe that Martians really came to Victorian England – because surely we would remember such a thing – but to believe that in a universe where, all else being equal, if both Sherlock Holmes and Martians existed, then Holmes would have defended Britain against the invaders. If someone (such as H.G. Wells) were to write a narrative about such an event that did not include the heroic actions of Sherlock Holmes, then they must be taken to task for such an omission and the true story told.

As far as can be discerned in the most popular pastiches (there being over 8000 on record as of 2010, far too many to read in a decade [Picker, 2010: 19]) Holmes does not meet any of his historical/fictional contemporaries that would have frequented Bloomsbury and fallen under the category of Modernist: Conrad and Marlow, Ford and Dowell, James and his Americans, et cetera. Instead, Holmes encounters those creations which occupy the liminalities of the Gothic threat to safety and order. What Cottom is saying (and present writers are unconsciously acknowledging) is that Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the fantastic than the Modernist. Dracula and Mr Hyde are dangerous to others; Marlow and Dowell are only threats to themselves. The existential musings of Modernist men and women unhappy about their world and laden with malaise can already be filled by Holmes when he is not on a case; there is no need for character repetition. Perhaps the inventions of Bloomsbury are too rooted in their own realistic world for even the ironic believer to accept their straying into the gothic world of Holmes.


Sherlock + Jack

There is certainly one piece of history that modern writers have tied Sherlock Holmes to more than any other: Jack the Ripper. The Last Sherlock Homes Story, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, The Whitechapel Horrors…These are just a few of the titles of Sherlock versus Jack. The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the most infamous crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real to us in any literary form, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history. So how do modern authors navigate this historical and literary synthesis?

Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)4 presents us with the traditional frame that has come into use: Watson’s lost manuscript is locked away until decades after his death, a piece never revealed to Arthur Conan Doyle, or ‘ACD’ as Watson refers to him throughout the novel. The ‘Editors’ provide a Forward explaining the discovery of Watson’s narrative, the disagreement about its publication and that some will ‘regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution’ (Dibdin, 1978: xiii). Dibdin method of uniting these facts and fictions is to cast Sherlock Holmes himself as the schizophrenic killer, as Holmes, Moriarty, and Jack the Ripper, all in one. And who is to say that Holmes was not the Ripper? Jack was never caught. Watson and Holmes – rather than Holmes and Moriarty – fight to the death at the Reichenbach Falls, and only Watson emerges, with a secret he must keep. Conan Doyle, unconcerned with the loss of his literary cash-cow, keeps writing Holmes stories, though there is no more Holmes, and no more input from Watson. Watson quietly goes along with this because he wants his friend to be remembered as ‘the best and wisest man’. Here we have the solution to the Whitechapel murders, an identity in the form of Moriarty generated by the split personality of Holmes, who did indeed die in Switzerland in 1891, the relationship between Watson and Conan Doyle is detailed, and the origin of the stories we know explained. There are no loose ends.

Bernard Schaffer’s Whitechapel (2011) is as much a detailed history of the actual murder investigation as it is a Sherlock Holmes story, using Holmes as a vehicle to explore genuine fact (in all its gory details) in pursuit of an answer. Schaffer sides with those theorists who blame the well-connected Montague Druitt, and it is those connections which keep Watson from publishing his full account with the solution to the murders. Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) presents a new solution to the crime, that in which it was a police officer assigned to the investigation, but Faye can do this while still remaining within established fact – besides the presence of Sherlock Holmes on the case. All of these tales walk us through one of the most documented crimes in history, using the characters of Holmes and Watson to solve the unsolvable.

Why did Arthur Conan Doyle never discuss Jack with Sherlock and his readers, though? In an essay by Jon Lellenberg that follows Caleb Carr’s Holmesian pastiche The Italian Secretary, Lellenberg hypothesises:

There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes never investigates a series of murders resembling the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, and that Dr Conan Doyle, interested in real-life crime normally, never appears to have studied or discussed it either. Some things are unspeakable except in terms of a psychology that Sherlock Holmes would have shrunk from embracing of his own accord, so repulsive its philosophical implications might have seemed to him. (Lellenberg, 2005: 274)

Theft, fraud, and the occasional homicide inspired by vengeance or inheritance were far more acceptable for Conan Doyle (and Holmes) to contemplate than the unfathomable ruthlessness of a serial killer. In Judith Flanders’s study The Invention of Murder, she notes that while some of Sherlock’s early adventures were quite violent, they turned later to the ‘quirky, even whimsical’ and that this is perhaps why Holmes remained so popular: ‘There was enough blood, enough violence, in Whitechapel’ (Flanders, 2011: 438-9). Holmes can keep away the shadows of danger that haunt the streets (and pages) of late-Victorian London, then and now.



Why Sherlock Holmes? Why is he our literary spirit guide to this era? That in itself is an entire PhD thesis, but Cottom makes an interesting insight into the canonical character: ‘In the world as Doyle portrays it, Sherlock Holmes is the only subject who can be supposed to know. No one else can enter into, communicate with, and comprehend all parts of society as he can’ (Cottom, 2012: 559). Pastiche writers of today can move Holmes beyond his self-contained universe and into the realms of history and literature, because if anyone was to know everyone in the fin de siècle (and be able to tell us the truth of them) it would be Sherlock Holmes.

I started out calling Holmes a literary Virgil, guiding us through the contemporary texts and events of Conan Doyle’s time. Type ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into Amazon and you will find scores of Holmes-related texts published every year, feeding this expanding universe. Sometimes we are still permitted to enjoy Holmes for himself – id est, Anthony Horowitz’s recent bestseller The House of Silk (2011) approved by the Conan Doyle estate, and engaging with neither historical or literary characters and remaining contained within the canonical world of Holmes himself. But this is an exception to the published Holmes stories of the last four decades, which have chosen instead to engage not just Holmes, but the whole of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras as source material to build their narratives. The employment of Holmes in these narratives is not just about telling us a new Sherlock Holmes story: these are about moving Holmes into a wider engagement with history, and at the same time, pulling history into the world of Holmes, building verisimilitude for the potential existence of Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a figure that has come to permeate so much of our culture (passing the boundaries of pure-fictionality) that it is legitimate to sit back and philosophically consider how real Sherlock Holmes is or may have been. He has become a focal point around which to construct an entirely believable historical universe, walking us through London’s foggy streets and introducing us to both Queen Victoria and Mr Hyde.



  1. As opposed to the ‘naïve believer’, who does not know any better.
  2. There are too many pastiches to be read these days, so for the most part this paper is focused on the Sherlock Holmes novels that come from reputable pens and publishers, rather than tiny presses, ebooks, and print-on-demands. One of the noticeable differences between these types of books is that the more well-known authors and titles engage in The Game of persuading the ‘ironic believer’ via the mentioned techniques.
  3. Lyndsay Faye, Nicholas Meyer, and Laurie R. King are among the best known examples that have used Baring-Gould as inspiration.
  4. For anyone who has not yet read the novel, and wishes to remain safely ignorant of the ending, then consider this your warned: Spoilers Ahead.

Works Cited

Cawthorn, Nigel. A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes (London: Robinson, 2011)

Cottom, Daniel. ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’, English Literary History (79, 2012), pp. 537-67

Davies, David Stuart. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (London: Titan Books, 2001)

Dibdin, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Doyle, Arthur Conan. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986)

Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (London: Titan Books, 1978)

—. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (London: Titan Books, 1979)

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011)

Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1983)

—. Letters to Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1985)

Lellenberg, John. ‘Dr Kreizler, Mr Sherlock Holmes…’, in Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary (London: Time Warner Books, 2005), pp. 262-75.

Meyer, Nicholas. The Seven-per-cent Solution: Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974)

Picker, Lenny. ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’, Publisher’s Weekly (18 January 2010), pp. 18-9

Saler, Michael. ‘“Clap if You Believe in Sherlock Holmes”: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890 – c. 1940’. The Historical Journal, 46, 3 (2003), pp. 599-621

Siciliano, Sam. The Angel of the Opera (London: Titan Books, 1994)

Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1960)

Stashower, Daniel. The Ectoplasmic Man (London, Titan Books, 1985)

Wellman, Manly Wade and Wade Wellman. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (London: Titan Books, 1975)

Sketches of the Impossible: Illustrating the Hollow Earth

(From a paper presented at the C19 conference at Penn State, March 19, 2016.)

Subterranean world. Hollow Earth. The Underground. Or my phrase to evoke all of the above, terra cava.

These words precipitate different mental images for different people, but before the nineteenth century, you would have found an almost universal response in the form of Hell, Hades, Dante’s Inferno. Certainly artistic renderings would reinforce this religious/mythic view.

Athanasius Kircher started to shift this paradigm in the seventeenth century, reinforced by Edmond Halley’s – erroneous – mathematical calculations that the earth must be a series of concentric spheres due to a miscalculation of planetary density. The Royal Society did not revisit the topic, though, and it remained one of the more obscure theories of natural philosophy until an unheard of retired American infantry captain sent out this short pamphlet: “To all the world, I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the Poles…”

John Cleves Symmes Jr, a self-educated trader on the frontiers of St Louis, declared to all the world (that being mostly newspapers and universities in American and Britain) that the earth was hollow and habitable within and just waiting for brave Americans to plant the stars and stripes on entirely new continents. Because Symmes and his theory are relegated to the footnotes of history, it’s easy to dismiss as a minor philosophical fad. But we have the newspapers and magazine articles, novels and serials, to prove otherwise. What Symmes started far outlives his own death in 1829, and a significant part of that success stems from the imagery employed to covey what words could not. Why is this imagery important? Peter Mendelsund, in What We See When We Read, points out that “Visibility can be confused with credibility. Some books seem as though they are presenting us with imagery, but they are actually presenting us with fictional facts… These books predicate their plausibility, and for the reader, their conceivability, on an accretion of details and lore.” (p. 235) This theory of the hollow earth would continue to gain followers, ‘facts’ and stories for decades to come.

Symmes toured the US for years, giving lectures to large audiences with the visual aid of his own globe, showing the world open at the north and south poles. Even before Symmes began his tour, though, one of the first American science fiction novels was in circulation, Symzonia, presenting a map, a cross-section of the earth demonstrating the polar openings and reach of the sun. This is not a dark world lit with the fires of damnation, but one that shines just as brightly as our own. This one map is revolutionary, and will be duplicated in various forms for the next century. We don’t know who Adam Seaborn was, perhaps Symmes himself, more likely not (especially considering the misspelling of Symmes’s name in the title). But we see two worlds here, the second within the first, also open at its Poles, but this world is never explored in the text. The idea of multiple interior worlds was also dropped in favour of a single, hollow sphere by the second-half of the nineteenth century, when hollow earth writing enjoyed a publishing boom.

Unfortunately, Poe did not leave us any images of Arthur Gordon Pym’s Antarctic voyage to a polar opening at the bottom of the world, his narrative falling between Symmes and this later period of popular literary exploration. We have to skip ahead to the most well-known of all terra cava narratives, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. An enduring part of its legacy are the 52 engravings by Edouard Riou, bringing to life the geology and paleantology of Verne’s text, each picture an economy of a thousand words or so. Though not American in origin, it was well known in the US and those images went on to influence the artists illustrating later American terra cava narratives.

This is most clearly seen in an equally lavishly illustrated American text by John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa (and if you are wondering about the strange title, that is ‘Aphrodite’ spelt backwards). J Augustus Knapp, Lloyd’s artist, brings the giant mushroom forest from Riou’s engravings into play, dimly lit caverns, large crystalline structures, and scenes of exotic reptiles. Though thematically their narratives could not have been further apart (Lloyd’s novel is a trippy journey through the mind instead of geology), Knapp’s illustrations help to connect readers with a more familiar story. And this is a story deeply in need of familiar space and place; in a 1976 reprint, Neal Wilgus accused Lloyd of using marijuana, ergot and opium to conjure his tale. No one has accused Knapp of anything except good artistry in his interpretation of Lloyd’s prose, and perhaps borrowing a little heavily from Riou.

Etidorhpa goes even further than Journey, though, in its illustrative education, using half-page and text cuts to further illustrate events and scientific principles. Lloyd inserts himself into his own fiction, claiming to have received the manuscript from a fellow named Llewelyn Drewry, and includes a facsimile of a letter purported written by I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It, the primary narrator. All of this to build upon the veracity of his narrative, and before you get too far into thinking how ridiculous it would be for anyone to perceive Etidorhpa as anything other than a fiction, there were many Spiritualists who did embrace the novel at face value. Lloyd even includes a cross-sectional map of the world to trace the journey, and a map of Kentucky, purporting to show the entrance to this underground spiritual realm, as well as experimental ‘proofs’ for the physical functions of this subterranean world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), where Cyrus Durand Chapman provided sumptuous landscapes and spectacular battles, with further contributions from RW Rattray, Leonard Davis and Allen Dogget. Bradshaw’s own prose describes a kingdom with “the enchanted charm of Hindoo (sic) and Greek architecture, together with the thrilling ecstasy of Gothic shrines” in a capital city called Egyplosis. We’re of course seeing here the Western appropriation of the colonized, the irony of this being that the protagonist – an American adventurer and entrepreneur name Lexington White – does go on to conquer and colonize Atvatabar.  Readers are shown what Nathaniel Robert Walker described as “Babylon Electrified” in his article of the same title, exploring oriental and industrial hybridity. Many of the hollow earth narratives from this period employed the same styling, but none were illustrated as thoroughly as Atvatabar. This is a world of ‘spiritual batteries’ and fantastic technology; they can fly, but carry their goddess around on a sedan, and are no match for the daring-do of new King, Lexington White.

The work of Lloyd and Bradshaw is not typical however. Most of the terra cava narratives were limited runs from small presses or self-published for a small group of subscribers (which is actually how Etidorhpa got its start; Lloyd was able to work with Knapp because they were neighbours). If a writer could afford to put just one image into his or her (and yes, there were a few hers) story, a map was the first choice. But rather than travels lines dashed across the surface of a globe, we get cross-cut section of journeys through the earth. Part of the verisimilitude of any travel story is the potential to recreate it. Rather than obfuscate points of origin and entry, these are detailed, promising the allure of an adventure. Like Symzonia, sometimes these maps are the only illustrations we get. I like what Peter Mendelsund said about maps in his study: “Our maps of fictional settings, like our maps of real settings, perform a function. A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture […] but rather, it is a set of guidelines.” (p 232). The guidelines, in this instance, are a reformation of the reader’s thinking about the earth’s structure.

What lends these maps and images the weight of semi-truth is the quality of the unknown. The Earth’s Poles were not reached until the first decade of the twentieth century. And even now it is hard to convince some people that they are there. (The sequel to NAZIS-in-space movie Iron Sky is going to be set beneath Antarctica, a popular theory for the hiding place of the remnants of the Third Reich). Other points of entry are to be found in caves and mountain crevasses. Variations on Symmes’s original theory are found, like this one from The Goddess of Atvatabar, which has a small internal sun rather than refracted light from the outside. This one, from Cresten; Queen of the Toltus, takes a more traditional view.

Symmes’s work was well known enough to not require extensive explanation or illustration. The significance of both of these is that the idea of concentric spheres has been eliminated, and the popular imagination has settled on a single hollow globe with water and lands held to the obverse side, gravity laying somewhere in the middle of the crust. These illustrations in fictions are hardly different from those that appeared in ‘non-fiction’ newspaper and magazine articles; if you see something from a purportedly neutral source, giving simply a report, this plays into Medelsund’s ‘fictional facts’; you’re not sure if the article is right or not, but it might be, and the images mesh with what you’ve seen from other sources; it is a circular proof, but only until explorers can definitively prove one way or another. (Cue Admiral Peary in 1909.)

I would like to take a moment to point out the antithesis of my discussion thus far, and that is the use of illustrations that in no way concern themselves with the setting of a terra cava novel and could by employed in almost any adventure story of the age. These concern themselves instead with characters, with the heroic white males and beautiful native females; they are mirrors for the reader instead of vistas. These could just as easily come from a Rider Haggard or Boy’s Own story. Adventure, intrigue, romance, yes, but specific indicators that this is a hollow earth narrative; not so much. I don’t think it is coincidental that the most remembered terra cava narratives, and the ones that went through multiple printings, were also those most lavishly illustrated with images of the fabulous. To quote Adam Sonstegard’s work Artistic Liberties, “Artists who merely leave characters on the canvas as they have them in print have not done their job; the character must be ‘bettered’ in the exchange.” (p. 11) And the hollow earth topos is a significant character.

An anomaly in this fantastic imagery is the decided non-fantastic. George McKesson uses photographs from around Cripple Creek in Colorado in Under Pike’s Peak, taking his influence from the local geology and mining operations. And GW Bell pictures of colonial authorities and native Māori and postcards of New Zealand in Mr Oseba’s Last Discovery. As American consul to New Zealand, Bell was attempting to sell the many benefits of the country, deemed by the inhabitants of the interior world to be the best place on the surface of the earth.

There are no sketches, no fantastical illustrations; and let’s be honest, if one of these men has in fact produced a photograph of a subterranean civilization, we would be having an entirely different conversation. I was perplexed by this until coming across this small display at the Columbus Museum of Art:


“Travel albums became popular in the late nineteenth century, when the tourism industry emerged. During this time, a growing number of photographers documented historic monuments and popular sites, as well as scenes of daily life, hoping to sell them a souvenirs.”

McKesson and Bell weren’t just telling us another hollow earth story; they were annotating – extensively – their travels. Mundane geography becomes fantastic geography just beneath the surface. These photographs don’t elicit the same response as the more imaginative sketches or weird flora and fauna, but in that sense it grounds the narrative in reality, perhaps a little too firmly. Neither book enjoyed great success.

Science in the nineteenth century was about exploring and explaining the unseen. Travel literature inspired the landlocked by showing them what they would never see in person. The individual scrap book became the mass-produced speculative novel. The discovery of iced-in, non-porous Poles, and geologists settling on the liquid magma structure of the earth, put an end to the boom in hollow earth literature, but its imagery can still be found in aspects of popular culture.


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