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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).



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.

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.

A Bard for the End of the World

The Hollywood blockbuster The Monuments Men brought to light a little known piece of WWII history, the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive (MFAA) program to save Europe’s cultural heritage from Hitler and Russian treasure hunters. In the midst of a technological war, the salvage of paintings and statuary became a cause worthy of men’s lives. Why? Because art has influence and meaning in human life, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

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.

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, from microscopic bacterium to the earth-shattering bomb.

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.

Lest we consider this purely fictional imagining, 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.”[4] 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.


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

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

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

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

Science Fiction’s Political Mars

“A paradigm, and a million dreams, died with a single, grainy snapshot. Space insiders believe that the disappointment of Mariner 4 killed off the post-Apollo space programme: if Mars had turned out to be a worthwhile destination, we’d have gone there by now.”

Stephen Baxter[1]

Mars Books

When Science Fiction Took the Government to Mars

The use of new scientific information about Mars may have been intended to establish a sense of speculative realism, but it is the political speculation of these narratives that is most revealing of the authors’ sentiments, and perhaps even more so than science, politics adds fuel to the plot. The language utilised, though, is reminiscent of the inspirational rhetoric employed during Europe’s Age of Exploration, and America’s own expansion across the continent. Where missionaries once sought to bring civilisation to the uncivilised, scientists seek to bring life to a lifeless world and science fiction authors are composing the long tracts of how to make this possible. In a democracy, the people must be convinced along with the representative government. From their fervent intrepid characters to the authors’ own addresses beyond the fourth wall, there is a belief that ‘there is a fork in the road leading to the future: either civilization will collapse, or humans will reach Mars!’[2] To this end, the narratives are an extension of the hope of changing opinions about Mars, producing an art imitating life with the desire for life to imitate art. First, it is necessary to understand the various motivations the authors have contrived for going to Mars, ones that are striking similar to those which pushed European explorers out into the world. Next, the methods the authors use to convince their audience are again strikingly similar to those used by early explorers in their travel narratives. The unique updated aspect of these novels is that the politicians and exploitative industrialists must be identified, vilified and cowed into standing aside so that the scientists and explorers may reign triumphantly vindicated.

These writers and proponents of exploring Mars have crafted narratives of man-versus-man-versus-society, which are filled out with as much, or more, politicking than science. To note that ‘Novels do not merely reflect the regime; they contain significant reflections on it’[3] is indicative of the authors’ frustrations with the present (presumably American) political system’s stance on Mars exploration; a continuing reliance upon unmanned missions, and unfulfilled promises of manned expeditions serving as political distraction from more dire situations. Mars is a significant step in the opinion of American space enthusiasts because the nation has always been at the forefront of space exploration; there is the fear of losing ground, of giving up the fight to reach beyond Earth’s orbit. The ability to reach the moon has already been lost. But an adept student of history can verify that politics and profit is the driving force behind human exploration, from Prince Henry the Navigator to the Apollo missions, as ‘politics is inextricably bound up with the personal needs, yearnings, and fantasies of its participants.’[4] Pragmatic politicians only concerned with the bottom line, taxes, and re-election (something the old monarchies never faced when sponsoring a voyage) therefore must be convinced of why such an endeavour is necessary. Failing the politicians’ ability to act, within the stories it is private enterprise which takes up the charge to Mars, looking to turn a profit. These motivations stand in juxtaposition of the authors’ perspective of the dreamer. They are putting forth their own political ideals and perceived political enemies in none-too-subtle narratives and addresses to readers. In Robert Zubrin’s mind, the reasoning for this push to Mars is clear, and he spells it out succinctly in The Case for Mars, which served at the framework for his fictionalised Mars travel:

“The creation of a new frontier thus presents itself as America’s and humanity’s greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.
I believe that humanity’s new frontier can only be on Mars.”[5]

This is the American philosophy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ reconstituted. These are distinctly American novels with a distinct interpretation of the word ‘frontier’; were in the US it is indicative of a region awaiting settlement, in Europe it is identified only as a border between countries, not a region for exploration. The authors, then, are all employing the American ideal of the frontier (all being Americans themselves). To accompany this perceived need for a new frontier to keep the human spirit alive is the undying hope of finding life, the new ‘gold’ to be sought in the new world, though undoubtedly, finding gold on Mars would certainly raise a few more voices calling for a manned expedition. The debates between the characters of idealistic explorer and seemingly callous politician appear to be a sort of catharsis for the authors – the idealistic explorers always win the argument, and hopefully the reader will be convinced as well.

Historically, the travel narrative has been about adventures into terra incognita for purposes of mapping and scientific inquest. Mars has been mapped in detail, and yet there is still a sense of mars incognita because no one has actually been there. It is not enough to simply have the map, as history tells; ‘Cartographers and other map makers, including adventure story writers, charted areas of geographical knowledge and terra incognita, and through their maps they possessed real geography. In cartographic and literary maps, Europeans charted the world then colonised it’.[6] NASA has mapped the Red Planet; the next move then, in the opinion of these SF writers and in keeping with historical trends, is to explore and colonise. By undertaking the immense task of Mars cartography, there is perhaps a sense of proprietary entitlement among scientists and Mars supporters, laying the groundwork of pre-colonial appropriation with the defence ‘We mapped it, therefore it is ours.’ During the nineteenth century, the US federal government would subdue and/or remove local native inhabitants (something that in all likelihood would not be repeated on Mars) then send out the cartographers, naturalists and the US Geological Survey (which has assisted in the mapping of Mars today) to study and map the land in preparation for the arrival of settlers. Mars has been surveyed and is currently awaiting the arrival of a few naturalists to pave the way for colonists. In Zubrin and the Mars Society’s philosophy, the survival of the species depends upon reaching out to a new frontier, creating a human empire. Other science fiction writers of this particular type of narrative may not be as conscious of this impetus, but they are still encouraging their readers to go forth.

Politicians must respond to their fickle constituency, and the dream of going to Mars has become extremely political. The Mars Society and the authors of these books are attempting to placate public doubts with their rhetoric: The ethos of the authors presenting their scientific credentials and sources; the logos of the long debates between scientists and their detractors (the former always carrying the argument); and pure pathos, such as the spectacle-filled return of Zurbin’s astronauts accidently splashing down in New York harbour, which quickly wipes away the quarantine concern, and the ecstasy in each book as life, in one form or another, is found on Mars. The logic of science may be a useful tool for framing a new world in an SF novel, but the modern consumer is driven by their pathos, and Mars must be sold to the public and politicians. Utilising the work of researchers and the Mars Society to present a facade of scientific justification is merely political fodder to feed the dream of going to Mars, and these novels are an attempt to pull in the uninitiated who would rather read science fiction than Scientific American.  Zubrin’s own character is part of this political fodder, as in Benford’s The Martian Race: ‘They had a joyous visit from Bob Zubrin, the Tom Paine of Mars who had pushed the earliest ideas about going on the cheap.’[7] This particular analogy is in all likelihood a reference to Thomas O. Paine, a NASA administrator during the Apollo years who once stated, ‘Well, if you want to go to Mars, go to Mars!’[8] But there is also (a perhaps unintended) reference to Thomas Paine, revolutionary and writer of Common Sense, and alludes to a perception of Zubrin as the man who will inspire a scientific revolution, that The Case for Mars is the new Common Sense.

While the push for a Martian revolution here on Earth is a new idea, the motivations for a manned expedition so far out into space are the same in every narrative, as Bova sums up most concisely:

“The scientists wanted to go to Mars for curiosity’s sake. To them, exploration of the universe was a goal in itself.
The visionaries wanted to go to Mars because it is there. They viewed the human race’s expansion into space with religious fervor.
The military said there was no point in going to Mars; the planet was so far away that it served no conceivable military function.
The industrialist realized that sending humans to Mars would serve as a stimulus to develop new technology – on risk-free money provided by the government.”[9]

The only group excluded from this list is the politician themselves, and for them, Mars is only political capital, to be encouraged or derided as it suits the mob’s opinion du jour. The first two groups of ‘scientists’ and ‘visionaries’ may certainly encompass these authors’ perceptions of Mars and humanity’s future, as demonstrated by the previously discussed pre- and post-text notes included in the novels. None of these narratives are meant to serve as pure camp science fantasy; the authors have their own visionary political goals, ‘Mars in our time’ as Gregory Benford (a Mars Society board member) states in his dedication to The Martian Race. Industrialists have not yet gotten in on the push for Mars, but Benford and Bova’s latter book both make use of private funds for reaching the Red Planet. Historically, both governments and entrepreneurs have been involved in the push to open new frontiers.

[1] Stephen Baxter, ‘Martian Chronicles: Narratives of Mars in Science and Sf’, in Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Vol. 68, p. 12.

[2] Hartmann, A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, p. 434.

[3] Catherine H. Zuckert, ‘The Novel as a Form of American Political Thought’ in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p. 136.

[4] George Von der Muhll, ‘The Political Element in Literature’, in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p.42.

[5] Robert Zubrin, The Case for Mars, p. 297.

[6] Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A geography of adventure (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 6.

[7] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 25.

[8] Zubrin and Wagner, The Case for Mars, p. 137.

[9] Bova, Mars, pp. 16-17.

The Wise Man of the Desert


Adam Roberts, the award-winning British science fiction author, sure loved his desert settings early in his writing career. He even admits it:

“This is what I’ve been thinking. My last three novels, SnowGradisil and [Land of the] Headless, are all–I can see, now–desert novels. A desert of water ice; a desert of orbital vacuum; a desert of the soul; and in all three cases the concomitant mental and emotional sensibilities, and aesthetics. In a way these three novels represent a sort-of trilogy, a thematic trilogy; and they are accordingly and necessarily rather barren. I can hardly complain if people find this offputting.”[1]

Roberts has indeed struggled with some reviewers and readers finding his novels “offputting”, perhaps because the readers and reviewers do not know how to approach his works. Roberts does not write space opera or thrillers, the kind of SF that seems to predominate; he writes what others have identified as Menippean satire.[2] For those unfamiliar with the concept, we will use Northrop Frye’s definition of the genre:

“The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylised rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.”[3]

This means that when Roberts is called “The king of high-concept SF” (that was Jon Courtenay-Grimwood of The Guardian, a piece of praise now used on most of the covers of Roberts’s novels) it is his ideas being lauded and not necessarily his plots. Roberts employs characters that are not often likeable and have a tendency to perhaps stretch the truth, lying to us as well as themselves. The situations in which the characters find themselves can be extreme to the point of the absurd. But that is the point of satire, to call out the ideas and philosophies of our everyday lives in order to highlight their possibly ridiculous nature. So what does this have to do with deserts?

A quick review of the various deserts Roberts used in his novels:

1) Salt (2000) is a novel about warring religious fundamentalists on a new colony world called – obviously – Salt, because the planet is a desert of salt.

2) The Snow (2004) is a novel about the icy apocalypse of Earth, buried under three miles of snow, and the handful of survivors who find themselves  under the control of a totalitarian US military government in a desert of snow that may not be snow at all.

3) Gradisil (2006) is a novel about the settlement of Earth’s orbit by the wealthy that have escaped a decaying planet, living in a desert of vacuum.

4) Land of the Headless (2007) is the story of a decapitated (yet still living thanks to technological intervention) poet/criminal who passes through not just a “desert of the soul” as Roberts says, but a literal desert of sand and the desert of the battlefield.

So again, why deserts?

Because it is the barrenness of these landscapes that allow the ideas being espoused to stand in sharp relief. World-building is an extensive part of the SF novum, but it is much easier to build a world of ideas when you do not have to carry on about the biologic and geologic formations of your world. Roberts’s characters are allowed to inhabit their philosophies in the emptiness of a desert rather than being inhabited by the lushness of a jungle. Satire – and especially Menippean satire – cannot afford to be dragged down by descriptions of a physical world when there is a mental world to be explored; chess is played on a plane of only two alternating colours (well, unless you have one of those 3-D Star Trek chess sets) so that you can move swiftly across the board. For Roberts, writing in a desert provides the same advantage, decluttering the environmentally abstract in favour of the philosophically certain. Not that Roberts was necessarily aware of this repetition in setting for his first several novels:

“It might seem a little belated on my part, only now to be seeing larger patterns in the way my books are coming out. But then again, writing is a balance between what the writer plans and what emerges… Perhaps there’s some tectonic shifting happening under my very own feet, and I’m only slowly becoming aware of it. Maybe, and without directly informing me, my creative imagination has had enough of deserts for the time being.”[4]

Roberts has moved on from his desert novels into far more verdant worlds, his satire becoming more subtle in its send-up of our strange human ways. But there is still a wise man lurking in the deserts or the fields of England or the streets of Moscow trying to tell us a truth about what it is to be human, warning us against the fanatical, the dictatorial, and the fallacious. 

[2] Paul Kincaid, “Learning to Read Adam Roberts”, http://bigother.com/2011/03/05/learning-to-read-adam-roberts/

[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (London: penguin Books, 1957), p. 309.

Exploring the World with Roy Rockwood

Five Thousand Miles Underground

Starting with Through the Air to the North Pole in 1906 (New York: Cupples & Leon) Roy Rockwood (a pseudonym used by the publishing house) introduced the eccentric inventor Professor Amos Henderson and his two young apprentices Jack and Mark, whom he rescued from a train crash and took under his wing. The author’s approach to this is far from politically correct by today’s standards: ‘The professor watched their faces with delight. He loved boys and mechanical apparatus.’ (32) NAMBLA would sure find these to be a wonderful series of books. (And yes, that is sarcasm.)

The purpose of these novels is to encourage in young men a spirit of adventure, mechanical invention, and clean leaving. So running off to the North Pole with a strange older man in his flying machine is of course the proper action: “Do you boys want to go along in the Monarch to a place where never mortal man has been?” (36) At this point in history, no one had reached the Poles yet, making this sort of tale an easy one to craft, mirrored on previous tropes of the genre, including a mixture of machinery and science magic.

‘There were electric motors, storage batteries, two gasoline engines similar to those used in automobiles, pumps, large and small tanks, instruments for measuring electric current, for telling the temperature, the amount of moisture in the air, the speed of the wind, the speed of the ship, the height of which is went, besides compasses, barometers, telescopes, and other instruments.

‘There were levers and wheels on every side, switches, valves, electric pugs and handles. Lockers arranged close to the wall and long the floor help supplies and materials. Everything was new and shining, and the professor smiled with pride as he touched piece after piece of machinery, and looked at the different instruments.’ (33)

That is the machine-porn part. Now we get to the science fiction that makes the Monarch possible, thanks to the professor’s miraculous discovery:  “All I have to do is fill the big bag of oiled silk with a new gas I have discovered and up we go. This is really the most important part of the invention. Without this powerful gas the airship would not rise above the earth. / But I have found this gas, which can be made in unlimited quantities from simple materials that we can carry with us. The gas has enormous lifting power, and if it was not for that I could not dare make such a large and comfortable airship. As it is, we can sail through the air as easily as if we were on an ocean liner on the sea…” (34).

Of course we have our usual adventurous parts, of the ship nearly crashing (multiple times) and being attacked by polar bears, sea lions, and Eskimos. They also stumble across a pile of bones and a copper cylinder (see Poe and DeMille for previous examples of this) containing a letter of warning:

Whoever may find this, take warning and do not seek to find the north pole. Danger lurks there. My name is Andre Christiansen, and I am a Dane, educated in America, who set out to find the pole I discovered it but was taken into captivity by the fierce people who dwell around it. They determined to get rid of me. With a party I was sent away. I was to be killed and buried (106) in the ice. Before they could kill me we were all attacked by polar bears. All the other men were killed and I was wounded. As I write this I am dying. I write it with my blood and a piece of bone. Send word to Denmark of my death, kind friend whoever you may be that finds this. If you reach this far in your search for the pole, be warned and go no farther. This is all I can write. I am nearly dead. I put the message in this copper cylinder which I brought along. I hope it will be found. Good-bye.” (107)

Of course they are found by these killer Eskimos, captured, ad just before their sacrifice, rescued by female Eskimo captured from another tribe, who learned English from André. Oh, and good news, she happens to be queen of her tribe, so she is able to stop our heroes from once more being sacrificed by savage Eskimos. In the midst of all this they do manage to reach the North Pole, sort of. A massive whirlwind stops them from being able to set down, and the Professor explains, “l think that the whirlwind is always there. It did not come at us, we ran into it. It may be caused by the magnetic currents at the pole eternally revolving.” (167-8) So hurrah, Professor Henderson, Jack and Mark manage to do what no other explorer has.

Up next, the South Pole!

Under the Ocean to the South Pole (New York: Cupples & Leon Co., 1907) sees the trio and their loyal companions take the Professor’s submarine, the Porpoise, to geographic south, again with the traditional series of ‘exciting’ adventures, running into shipwrecked survivors, murderous whales, pirates, etc. And when they do finally reach geographic south, something interesting awaits them: a boiling ocean. We are never given an adequate explanation as to why the ocean over the South Pole is boiling hot. We certainly weren’t confronted with such circumstance in the North Pole. This use of two different conditions allows for the hope that one of them may be right once explorers actually get there. Reaching the ‘open polar sea’ of the South Pole is not actually the most intriguing part of the narrative; it’s this little scene setting up the third book.

“Look out Professor! Don’t go any nearer or we’ll be sucked into the whirlpool!”

The inventor looked where the hunter pointed. Then he beheld the strangest sight he had ever seen. The island was low toward where Andy pointed and they beheld the waters of the ocean pouring over the edge of it, and falling down into an immense hole with a roar like that of Niagara Falls.

“Do you suppose this hole leads to the centre of the earth?” asked Mark. “I’ve read somewhere that the earth is hollow.”

“Some scientists believe it,” commented the professor. “This looks like a big enough hole to lead clear through to China. Hark, you can hear the road of the water now.” (123-5)

This hole found off the coast of South America is our point of return for the next adventure, Five Thousand Miles Underground, or, The Mystery of the Centre of the Earth (New York: Cupples & Leon Company, 1908). With the aid of Professor Henderson’s latest invention, the Flying Mermaid, they fly to this and into a new world, which the Professor hypothesis to be a second concentric sphere.

“I will tell you what I believe,” he said at length. “ I have never spoken of it before, but now that we are fairly started and may eventually have a chance to prove my theory, I will say that I think the centre of this earth on which we live is hollow. Inside of it, forming a core, so to speak, I believe there is another earth, similar to ours in some respects which revolves inside this larger sphere.” (39)

The Professor decides, upon their arrival that he is indeed correct. “I believe we are on a sort of small earth that is inside the larger one we live on. This sphere floats in space, just as our earth does, and we have passed through the void that lies between our globe and the interior one. I think this new earth is about a quarter the side of ours and in some respects the same. In others it is vastly different.” (143)

Via the discovery of both the North and South Poles to be physical geographic locations – thus negating the idea of Symmes’s Holes – it requires a modification of what’s been proposed in the preceding century. With out openings to provide sunlight, it comes instead from volcanic fires releasing multi-hued gases. Everything in this world is giant, like so many other descriptions of the interior world, except instead of trees, fruits grow on vines, and the native inhabitants are fifteen feet tall. The locals, according to the Professor, based on “Their houses, and the manner in which they live, show them to be allied to the Aztecs, though of course they are much larger than that race.” (185) Not that we are ever given the reason or evidence for this assertion.

Fortuitously, there was a stowaway on board the Flying Mermaid, who happens to be king of these people, accidentally trapped on the surface years before. As a reward, he points the explorers toward a treasure cave full of gold and diamonds. The king fails to mention the gigantic bats protecting the place, though. Fortunately the plucky travelers use lots of guns to win the day and  carry away the ransom of many kings. Too bad they don’t get to keep most of it due to weight restrictions on the rescue vessel that returns them to the surface. There is still enough of the jewels remaining for everyone to be well off and Jack and Mark save it to buy themselves fine educations.

So, what have we learned from all of this?

1) There is only one way to the interior of the earth, which has now accidentally closed.

2) There are riches galore to be had on the inside of the earth.

3) There are no holes in the Poles.

4) Everything inside the earth is gigantic.

5) Plucky young boys willing to go on grand adventures with older men will be richly rewarded. 

6) Only with the aid of technology can we get to any of these unexplored places.

“Make Room! Make Room!” and a The Politics of Contraception

Make Room_book coverOne of the great social anxieties of the 1960s was the population explosion rampant in the post-WWII years and its environmental impact, a social tremor that still exists. The cultural meme of “Soylent Green is people!” is treated as a joke today, but had far more relevant implications in decades past. This phrase from the 1973 Richard Fleischer film Soylent Green, does not actually appear in its original source material, Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Relying on shocking cannibalism, Fleischer ignores Harrison’s interest in the political movement for contraception to be made legal and widely available.

The fears of overpopulation had been extent since the publication of Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and its incredibly depressing, pre-Darwinian assessment on the nature and condition of population growth based on three principles:

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.

Harrison certainly takes ‘misery and vice’ into consideration in his novel. By the mid-twentieth century the issue had attracted the likes of John D. Rockefeller III, who established the Population Council in 1952 (Stableford, 398-9). (An interesting point of consideration is that someone as wealthy as Rockefeller was probably more interested in preventing the growth of a restless, impoverished underclass prone to rebellion rather than the prevention of mass misery.) In an interview with Locus Magazine in 2006 Harrison revealed his inspiration for the novel:

It was really the first book, fiction or non-fiction, about overpopulation. The idea came from an Indian I met after the war, in 1946. He told me, ‘Overpopulation is the big problem coming up in the world’ (nobody had ever heard of it in those days) and he said ‘Want to make a lot of money, Harry? You have to import rubber contraceptives to India.” I didn’t mind making money, but I didn’t want to be the rubber king of India! But I started reading a bit about overpopulation, and got the idea for the book. It stayed in my head as I watched the population trend going the wrong way. The thing took about eight years to write because I had to do a lot of research which was worth it. (Harrison, 2006)

Harrison realised that the issue of overpopulation would not be limited to India, and that there was a global groundswell of changing attitudes towards population and birth control. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists the three major themes explored in novels of overpopulation published since the 1960s: “the exhaustion of resources; the destruction of the environment by pollution; and the social problems of living in crowded conditions” (Clute, 901). Harrison, from his research, is able to divine all of these aspects, but focuses more firmly on depleted resources and the soul-destroying conditions of living cheek to jowl. Despite the “heroic adventure” often found in “post-apocalyptic narrative” (Booker, 61), there are no heroes in Make Room! Make Room!, no redemptive outcomes, no change to the status quo. Brian Aldiss called this a “masterly stroke” as it “defies a long-established SF convention that Everything Falls Apart in the Final Chapter.” (Aldiss, 299) Had the world been saved, it would have lessened the message Harrison was alluding to: change must happen in the present, so that this is not the future. As part of this narrative theme, the novel is not so much a post-apocalyptic tale as it is a slow-apocalypse in motion. The post-apocalypse is yet to come, but there is no doubt in the mind of Harrison’s characters that is it coming.

From the outset, in Harrison’s dedication, the severity of the issue is apparent: “To Todd and Moira. For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.” (Harrison, v) His novel is not meant only to entertain, but to inform, to sway opinion, and possibly to change the world. The point of his prognostications is not to be proven right, but to force the world to prove him wrong.  Harrison also provides a prologue for readers that outlines his reasons for this parable:

In December 1959 The President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said: ‘This government…will not… as long as I am here, have a positive political doctrine in its program that has to do with this problem of birth control. That is not our business.’ It has not been the business of any American government since that time.

In 1950 the United States – with just 9 per cent of the world’s populations – was consuming 50 per cent of the world’s raw materials. This percentage keeps getting bigger and within fifteen years, at the present rate of growth, the United States will be consuming over 83 per cent of the annual output of the earth’s materials. By the end of the century, should our population continue to increase at the same rate, this country will need more than 100 per cent of the planet’s resources to maintain our current living standards. This is a mathematical impossibility – aside from the fact that there will be about seven billion people on this earth at that time and – perhaps – they would like to have some raw materials too.

In which case, what will the world be like? (Harrison, vi)

Harrison has given readers a genuine social problem, its political origins, and the statistics regarding the overall problem faced by a future world with seven billion people. We are meant to acknowledge that while this is nominally a work of fiction there are very real consequences should the present course of society – as defined by quantifiable figures – remain unchanged. What is missing from this 2008 Penguin Classic edition of the novel is the original introduction from Paul Ehrlich (founder of Zero Population Growth, a movement designed to maintain, or even reduce, the world’s current population) and a bibliography on overpopulation (Barron, 211). These paratextual materials would have acted as additional elements for contemporary readers to weigh the seriousness and veracity of Harrison’s thesis by following up his sources and proving it so themselves.

The message of the novel – that without changes to human reproductive practices the future will find itself with millions crammed into slums on top of each other, fighting for food and resources – is couched in a murder mystery. Police detective Andy Rusch is our literary Virgil to the New York City of 1999, with 35 million people barely kept in food and water under an oppressive government and even more oppressive class system, all teetering on the brink of collapse. With this narrative style, it is not immediately obvious that the entire novel’s purpose is to convey the need for birth control until Andy’s roommate Sol takes the pulpit:

‘They’ve been over this ground a thousand times before. But does anyone mention out loud the sole and only reason for the Emergency Bill? They do not. After all these years they’re too chicken to come right out and tell the truth, so they got it hidden away in one of the little riders tacked onto the bottom.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Andy asked, only half listening.

‘Birth control, that’s what. They are finally getting around to legalizing clinics that will be open to anyone – married or not – and making it a law that all mothers must be supplied with birth-control information…’ (Harrison, 172-3)

The novel is mostly over before we finally get to the core of the issue; Harrison has let the reader absorb the horrors of this grossly over-populated New York City before laying before them his singular case for free information about birth control for women. In a conversation with Shirl, Andy’s girlfriend, Harrison uses Sol to expose the foil to this idea, and why opponents to birth control are wrong:

‘You heard about the Emergency Bill? It’s been schmeared all over the TV for the last week.’

‘Is that the one they call the Baby-killer Bill?’

‘They?’ Sol shouted…’Who are they? A bunch of bums, that’s what. People with their minds in the Middle Ages…’

‘But, Sol – you can’t force people to practice something they don’t believe in. A lot of them still think that it has something to do with killing babies.’

‘So they are wrong…You know well enough that birth control has nothing to do with killing babies. In fact it saves them. Which is the bigger crime – letting kids die of disease and starvation or seeing that the unwanted ones don’t get born in the first place?’

‘Putting it that way sounds different. But aren’t you forgetting about natural law? Isn’t birth control a violation of that?’

‘Darling, the history of medicine is the history of the violation of natural law… Everything was against natural law once, and now birth control has got to join the rest. Because all of our troubles today come from the fact that there are too many people in the world.’ (Harrison, 177-8)

It has taken over 170 pages to get to the root of the message that Harrison wants us, as readers, to understand: human thinking about controlling reproduction must change, because if it doesn’t, a world of starvation, disease and deprivation awaits us.

In 2008, Harrison wrote an afterwards to accompany the issuing of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Make Room! Make Room! in which he analysed the predictions he made, and the resultant society:

How has this novel stood the test of time?

It has been over half a century since I first began working on this book, digging out information on overpopulation, pollution and oil consumption. These were the facts that underlay my story of the future…

But how right were my predictions?

Pretty bad in most of the general details. I have never believed that science fiction predicts the future. It does not. There are predictions made in the literature; but they are hunches, guess, hopes. Authors shotgun the future with ideas. And, like shotgun pellets hitting a stretch of wall, some will hit the target…

Unhappily for mankind the population details, food shortages and oil consumption I wrote about have proven to be too horribly correct…

I am not happy about being correct; I wish it had been the other way around. I wish we had controlled population growth and developed green energy sources.

Perhaps we still can. Dare I be optimistic? I shall try.

While you, dear reader, will hopefully read this book and agree with me. (Harrison, 232-233)

Harrison, in this final statement, is confirming what the original intent of the novel was in 1966: to try and change the course of society, to force readers to recognise the need for population controls. What is more, he views his contemporary world to still be on a path to collapse and despite being wrong in some of the novel’s details, the outcome was mostly on target and there is still reason to be concerned.

In their history on science fiction, Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint frame Make Room! Make Room! in terms of human despair: “A tale of the impossibility of human community and love in overcrowded and impoverished circumstances” (Bould, 142). These themes certainly emerge, but they do not do the novel justice in ignoring Harrison’s message about the necessity for widespread, effective birth control. This message was also displaced in the making of Soylent Green (1973), as ‘much of its substance was lost in translation’ in John Clute’s judgement (Clute, 546). Harrison himself was said to be gravely disappointed with the film; the kindest thing he said of it was that Soylent Green “at times bore a faint resemblance to the book.” (BBC, 2012).

In the years after Harrison’s seminal novel, several more authors followed suit on the topic of overpopulation, including A Torrent of Faces (1967), Logan’s Run (1967), and Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Paul Ehrlich also continued what he started with his introduction for Harrison in the publication of his ground-breaking work The Population Bomb (1968). Stableford points out that the ‘anxieties regarding population peaked in the early 1970s, but did not die away’, they were merely co-opted into other environmental catastrophe literature (Stableford, 399). The relaxation of restrictions on birth control, however, certainly emerged from this tumultuous era, but there is no answer as to whether Harrison’s work directly influenced this, or if he was riding a wave of public sentiment already setting change in motion. David Seeds reports on the rejection of Paul Ehrlich’s work as “neo-Malthusianism” by those opposed to the rising environmentalism movement (Seed, 139), indicating a disbelief in the argument that the earth is limited in its ability to provide for the human population.

Certainly not enough academic work has been done on the impact of works like Make Room! Make Room! on the socio-political changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Overpopulation and birth-control faded into the background of environmental concerns stemming from overpopulation, the subject now relegated to a secondary issue in science fiction novels. Perhaps this is because birth control, at least for a time, was no longer a social issue that required attention. Almost on schedule with Harrison’s predictions, however, the earth has crossed the seven-billion mark in its population, and it may be time to pay attention once more.

By B. Shapiro-Hafid


Aldiss, Brain and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Paladin. 1988.

Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 2nd Ed. New York: R.R. Bowker Company. 1981.

Booker,  M. kieth and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.

Bould, Mark and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction. London: Routledge. 2011.

Clute, John and Peter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit. 1999.

Harrison, Harry. Make Room! Make Room!. London: Penguin Books. 1966, 2008.

“Harry Harrison: When the World Was Young”. Locus: The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. March, 2006. < http://www.locusmag.com/2006/Issues/03Harrison.html&gt;

Mann, George. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Robinson. 2001.

“Sci-fi Author Harry Harrison Dies”. BBC News. 15 August 2012. Accessed 4 April 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19270109&gt;

Seed, David, ed. A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

Stableford, Brian. “Population.” Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge. 2006. 398-400.

A ‘Fatal lack of risk’: Le Guin’s Early Conservative Plot and Gender Tropes

Rocannon's World Book coverIntroduction

When John Clute wrote that Ursula K. Le Guin was ‘‘eminently sane, humanitarian, concerned’ but went on to lament her ‘fatal lack of risk’’[1] he was being entirely fair about her inability to synthesize her concerned humanism with progressive plot-lines. Ursula K. Le Guin has been regarded as one of the most successful writers of fantasy and science fiction in the twentieth century, utilizing a heavy reliance on anthropology and environmental awareness. But with regards to sexual equality and non-traditional family units, Le Guin falls painfully short of challenging male dominance. The plots follow the classic masculine hero’s journey of adventure and discovery. Her earliest novels rely heavily upon male protagonists in male-dominated societies, as if the rest of the galaxy were no different from medieval Earth, and Le Guin did not trust her readers to accept any other setting. The ‘lack of risk’ in Le Guin’s writing is that each society she lays down appears misogynistic, with each cast of characters led by male protagonists who follow the strictures of heterosexuality, monogamous love of fellow men, heroism, and defense of the nuclear family. In the following, I examine the early science fiction stories that started Le Guin’s career, those set in the Hainish universe: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions and The Left Hand of Darkness (along with the short story ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ which later attempted to answer criticism of this novel). For each of the texts I will look for societal standards, such as family units, sexual conformity, and the role of women.


Le Guin herself is aware of the standardized influences that shape Western society, making her lack of narrative risk even more disappointing because she did not act against this male dominance of culture and mythology. She writes, ‘In our hero-tales of the Western world, heroism has been gendered: The hero is a man. […]Since it’s about men, the hero-tale has concerned the establishment or validation of manhood. It has been the story of a quest, or a conquest, or a test, or a contest. It has involved conflict and sacrifice.’[2] This may have been in response to her Earthsea stories, but all of Le Guin’s work seems to follow this pattern, to the point of painful redundancy. Never is a woman found to be making the same harrowing journey as the men.

Darko Suvin put forth the requirement of the novum for science fiction, a strange newness,[3] but Le Guin relies on mythological formats still firmly rooted in masculine tradition. She does not explore the novum of the alien because, in her words, ‘all my worlds, in the novels anyway, are populated by human beings. […] Part of what a novel does is make you feel with the people in it–so that you really can get into their skin and be a different person for a while, while you’re reading the novel. If the person is too remote from human experience, I think that’s not possible.’[4] Le Guin is unwilling to push readers to accept an alien perspective, and for this, her characters rarely stretch the bounds of the imagination or break with our social conventions. Having the Hain serve as the seeders for all intelligent life in the League simplifies the matter of explaining too-similar ‘alien’ life; they become variants of the Earth-bound cultures Le Guin has studied, and historically speaking, most cultures have always been male dominated. Another aspect of her failure to stretch the imagination is the life on alien worlds, as ‘Le Guin has no real interest in inventing bizarre fauna and flora. […] Just as her aliens are almost always recognizably human […] so are her animals and plants almost always recognizably based on those we know on Earth.’[5] This admitted un-inventiveness and failure to embrace the possibility of fantastic variety of life in the universe is symptomatic of Le Guin’s unwillingness to take risks with her characters and societies.

From her own life, it is possible to see the influences that have shaped Le Guin’s conservative approach to writing characters. As the child of anthropologists, utilization of anthropologic methods in her stories has led Le Guin to stick too closely to human social patterns; this may be why so many of her early worlds appear primitive and male-dominant. The critic Joe De Bolt notes, ‘Le Guin has been taken to task by some persons in the women’s movement for her infrequent use of women as leading characters and an inadequate feminine point of view in her works.’[6] This lack of risk is interesting, as Le Guin has never been ‘a volume producer. But, then, neither has she had to support herself and her family by writing: thus, she has escaped the output/income bind that plagues so many other fine writers in the genre.’[7] Because Le Guin was not dependent on income, she should have been able to take greater risks with her work and challenging readers’ cultural notions. There also appears to be an element of self-deception, when Le Guin states ‘the “person” I tend to write about is often not exactly, or not totally, either a man or a woman. On the superficial level, this means that there is little sexual stereotyping – the men aren’t lustful and the women aren’t gorgeous’.[8] This seems a dubious claim in light of the fighting/ voyaging men in these novels, fiercely loyal to their male companions (expressing monogamous love), and protection of women (when Le Guin bothers to insert female characters) and families. To say the women are not ‘gorgeous’ is to deny the goddess description attached to Semley and her people. Nor is it proper to categorize all men as lustful, as Le Guin is merely utilizing the sexual stereotype of the celibate, sexually reserved hero. And the tasks performed by her characters are still segregated by gender. An active heroine in these Hainish books is nowhere to be found.

The Hainish Novels

Le Guin’s earliest work was in her Hainish universe. Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions were the primary trilogy. All utilized mainly male protagonists in deeply misogynistic, primitive worlds. One might question why Le Guin held to these redundant settings for all three novels; it certainly does not require any stretch of the anthropological imagination. These were followed by the award-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which, if examined closely, still adheres to conservative male-dominance, the hetero male hero-journey, and the nuclear family.

An episodic hero-journey story, Rocannon’s World opens with a short story based upon the Norse myth of the goddess Freya and the Brisingamen necklace.[9] Instead of improving upon an ancient myth, Le Guin still employs a vain and beautiful woman/goddess – Semley – chasing after a stolen necklace to improve the family wealth and social standing. Upon her return she is devastated to learn of her husband’s death and generation that has passed her by. (It would have been more interesting if Le Guin has employed gender reversal, but she sticks to the idea that it must be a woman searching for lost jewelry.) From this short story the rest of the novel develops, casting aside Semley and utilizing male protagonists in the form of Rocannon (the Hainish ethnologist who follows Semley back to her home planet) and his companion Mogien (young Lord of Hallan). The risk-free, stereotypical plot, as the critic James Bittner states, follows ‘the heroic adventures of a white male protagonist.’[10] An early indication of the dominant role of the men is in a common curse repeated several times, ‘May our enemy die without sons’[11], emphasizing a culture of primogeniture. Little is explored in the way of sexual mores as Rocannon and Mogien ride around the planet looking to avenge Rocannon’s murdered friends and stop the enemy threatening the League. Men are treated as the agents of action and vengeance, as the Lady Ganye noted about her husband’s murder, ‘we have no revenge. […] And there is no man to make these Strangers pay for Ganhing’s death.’[12] Rocannon obliges, obliterating the enemy camp and riding home the conquering hero to marry Lady Ganye, thus enforcing the nuclear family. Le Guin’s female characters are background decoration in this novel. It is difficult to go into too much detail about the sexual and social structures in this novel because of its hero-adventure framework and the lack of female characters.

For Planet of Exile Le Guin allows female characters to play a larger part, but in the more violent, repressively male dominated society of Asketevar, which stands in contrast to the Terran colony that is supposed to represent a more equal society (though Le Guin’s execution of this ‘equality’ is questionable). Rolery is a young woman born out of season, a native of Tevar city, and the youngest daughter of the chief, Wold, who practices polygamy (his Terran wife referred to as ‘the exotic one in Wold’s female zoo’[13]). An indication of the hostility Le Guin has cultivated against women in this story is emphasized when Jakob Agat warns Rolery to stay away from him lest they ‘castrate me or ceremonially rape you.’[14] Jakob says this in disgust, to lay out the difference between his society and Rolery’s, and the racial pride his people have felt over hers. She never acts so much as she is acted upon; a reflection of Le Guin’s Taoist leanings, but it makes this female character appear out of control, Rolery’s fate in the hands of men. Her father Wold muses that ‘some Spring-born fellow would take her for third or fourth wife; there was no need for her to complain’[15] – again emphasizing the lack of freedom among the women.  Rolery’s only act that stands her above her kinswomen is to marry Jakob, but even when she moves into the city of Landin, she is seen doing domestic tasks of mending and nursing. Among the colonists in Landin, despite the supposedly equal social structure, Rolery notes of Jakob, ‘none of them knows how to take six steps without you’[16] – so a man is still in charge. And while the so-called ‘fighting men of Landin were gone […] Twenty women went together’[17] to round up cattle, a blatant sexual division of labour. When Jakob marries Rolery, Le Guin is perpetuating the more favourable nuclear family (not practiced by Rolery’s supposedly barbarian people) and dismissing the openly homosexual feelings of his friend Huru as a consequence of ‘over-communication.’[18] This brief mention of Huru is the only attention Le Guin pays to non-hetero sexual relations in the book, choosing to go no further. Of all the books explored in this paper, Planet of Exile offers the most in depth use of female characters; unfortunately, Le Guin does little with them except employ them in traditional domestic roles while the men are occupying centre stage.

City of Illusions is another hero journey for Le Guin, in the solitary figure of Falk-Ramarren in multiple male-dominated societies. She offers her own disappointed commentary on this novel, as ‘incomplete’, that ‘I should not have published as it stands. It has some good bits, but is only half thought out’.[19] The mindless lost ‘alien’ Falk is found in the forest of eastern America and cared for by Parth in traditional woman-as-caregiver form, instructing him as one would raise a child. Zove is the Master of the House, decides whether Falk should live and who the women under him should marry. During his journey west to confront the Shing and his past, Falk-Ramarren encounters only other men until  the brutal Mzurra – where he participated in the ceremonial ‘sexual abuse of one woman by all the males in turn’.[20] At this point he meets Estrel, ‘the gentle, docile, unwearying woman…by his side’[21], and they escape the Mzurra together, though in typical distressed maiden fashion, she requires a good deal of help on the trek west to Es Toch. The submissive female form is cast aside when they reach the Shing city, and Le Guin turns Estrel into an Eve, a traitor who lured Falk-Ramarren to his enemies. In the other novels examined, the monogamous bond between male traveling companions is never betrayed, but Le Guin allows the female companion to turn on the man who saved her life. Her own drug induced guilt over betraying Falk later turns Estrel against the Shing in a fit of too familiar female hysterics. The other Shing that readers encounter are all male, with no exploration of their society or women.  Upon remembering who he was Ramarren remembers the wife he left behind, long dead now, reinforcing his hetero-male status within the nuclear family and the self-sacrifice of a hero. He leaves behind any hope of reuniting with Parth to return to Werel and warn them about the Shing.

From these three mediocre books that quickly went out of print, The Left Hand of Darkness emerged. Though far better written, The Left Hand of Darkness still falls short of breaking gender stereotypes in the male hero-journey, its androgynous characters constantly referred to in the masculine form, and coming off as men who occasionally don a feminine veil. After all, a society can hardly appear misogynistic if everyone in it is male. Le Guin explains the ‘use of a male lead in LHD as the result of her fear that men would “loathe” the book and “be unsettled and unnerved by it”’[22] – so she was unwilling to risk upsetting a male audience. When Le Guin does slip into feminine uses, she allows herself to be bound by standard social occupations, referring to the owner of the house where Genly stays as a ‘landlady’ and stereotyping him/her as having a ‘fat buttocks that wagged as he walked, and a soft fat face, and a prying, spying, ignoble, kindly nature’.[23] When he is captured and in a truck of prisons, a young Gethenain kemmering as female is described as ‘pretty, stupid, […] smiling timidly, looking for solace.’[24] As descriptions of female characteristics go, Le Guin is not offering flattering or fair examples. Nor was Le Guin really pushing herself with the plot, as Genly Ai and the Gethenian Estraven are the same as Rocannon and his companion Mogien: a male League representative on a quest across an alien world in the company of a native, his best friend, trying to stay alive, yet in the end his friend will bravely sacrifice himself. Estraven is meant to be androgynous, but Le Guin always uses masculine pronouns when referring to the Gethenians. When Estraven kemmers as a women while crossing the northern ice sheet, she slips into stereotyping again, describing the feminine Estraven as ‘vulnerable, as remote as the face of a woman who looks at you out of her thoughts’[25] – as if Estraven is someone different while kemmering as a woman, because he is never treated to this description at any other point. Le Guin refuses to let the relationship between him and Genly turn sexual (perhaps making the males readers squirm) and instead maintaining the status of heroic male friendship found in the previous novels.

Twenty-five years later, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ was meant to respond to the criticism that The Left Hand of Darkness was not truly an androgynous society. It is perhaps a more socially liberal book, as there are no marriages – keeping kemmer – in the Thade family, so no one knows their father, but in the attempt to find some balance, Le Guin goes too far in the direction of the feminine. The narrator, Sov, refers to her family members as ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ and notes that ‘Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant’.[26] Instead of providing the sexless society she sought, Le Guin is still caught in traditional sex roles and perspectives. Sov complains like a women entering her menstrual cycle; ‘Why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time?’[27] Le Guin is unable to reconcile her own ‘genderless’ society in her work, constantly relying on standardized tropes of her view of how the sexes behave.


Le Guin’s lack of risk with her early writing has led to a sense of redundancy among the plot-lines of the novels and casts of characters that are dominated by men. Her carefully designed worlds are all too similar in their reliance upon primitive societies (both Terran and alien) practicing varying levels of misogyny, or in the case of The Left Hand of Darkness, expressing characters in standard masculine tropes. Perhaps her earlier success was dependent upon not upsetting male readers and keeping an available market open, but Le Guin could have made a greater effort to develop more assertive female characters in tandem with her traditional male heroes. Even The Left Hand of Darkness reads like a world dominated by men, with the occasional weak feminine trait popping up, but passing quickly; and the attempt at balancing this with ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ simple tips the scales into a feminine dominated perspective. Unwilling to upset male readers in her early work, trying to appease feminists in her later work, Le Guin’s most profound ‘lack of risk’ lies in the absence of a society of equals, which might not appeal to anyone.


Bittner, James, W. Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984).

Bucknall, Barbara J. Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981).

De Bolt, Joe, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1979).

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness (London: Orbit, 2004).

—. Three Hainish Novels (Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1978).

—. Ursula L. Le Guin, ‘A Citizen of Mondath’. Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Vol. 4, July, 1973. pp. 20-24.

—. ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’. The Birthday of the World (London: Gollancz, 2003). pp 1-22.

Suvin, Darko. ‘Estrangement and Cognition’. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction ed. by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2005). pp. 23-35.

Wilson, Mark B. ‘Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin straddles genres and masters them all’. <http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue189/interview.html&gt; Accessed 11 May 2008.

[1] John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Orbit, 1999), p. 704.

[2] Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea Revisioned, p. 5

[3] Darko Suvin, ‘Estrangement and Cognition, in Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction ed. by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2005), p. 24.

[4] Mark B. Wilson, ‘Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin straddles genres and masters them all’. <http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue189/interview.html&gt; Accessed 11 May 2008.

[5] Barbara J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981), p. 19.

[6] Joe De Bolt, ‘A Le Guin Biography’ in Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1979) ed. by Joe De Bolt, p. 24

[7] Joe De Bolt, ‘A Le Guin Biography’, p. 26.

[8] Barbara J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin, p. 152.

[9] Barbara J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin, p. 16.

[10] James W. Bittner, Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (Ann Arbour, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), p. 98.

[11] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels (Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1978),p. 27,

[12] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 103.

[13] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 135.

[14] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 133.

[15] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 125.

[16] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 159.

[17] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 168.

[18] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p. 135.

[19] Ursula L. Le Guin, ‘A Citizen of Mondath’, Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Vol. 4, July, 1973 p. 23.

[20] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p.263

[21] Ursula K. Le Guin, Three Hainish Novels, p.276.

[22] Joe De Bolt, ‘A Le Guin Biography’, p. 25.

[23] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (London: Orbit, 2004), p.46.

[24] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 148.

[25] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 210.

[26] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, The Birthday of the World (London: Gollancz, 2003), p. 3.

[27] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, p. 7.

Warning the Present to Preserve the Past: The Obliteration of History and Identity in Dystopian Literature

swastika-night-katherine-burdekin-cover“The fear of memory reached its height with him, and he gave us the logical and Teutonic remedy, destruction. All history, all psychology, all philosophy, all art except music, […] every book and picture and statue that could remind Germans of old times must be destroyed. A huge gulf was to be made which no one could ever cross again.”[1]

Thus explains the Knight von Hess to the Englishman Alfred in Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night. History, and the culture produced in that time, is a threat to the German Empire’s hold on the population; only ignorance and complete government control prevents rebellion. With no reliable history, people are deprived of the impetus to revolt because they do not know that life was ever any different, that the world might be a better place. Without a sense of identity, the characters are lost within the vast control of the state. This is an idea to be found in many dystopic novels besides Burdekin’s, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Another type of dystopia is the seeming ‘utopia,’ which exists under a lack of freedom and identity, and while some knowledge of the past is recognized, it is treated with scorn and contempt. Yevgeny Zemyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are examples of this style of uniformed, automaton-inhabited utopia. While dystopia may be more concerned with the present, the authors are offering a hyperbolic representation of the future, warning of things to come if the present situation remains unchanged: “The modern dystopia […] is as much an expression of contemporary fears and anxieties as it is a further refinement of generic conventions.’[2] Because these dystopias take place in the future, their dark, incomplete view of history is meant to represent our present and near future. The intent of this paper is to examine how the authors are warning their readers about the importance of history and identity to the freedom of thought and action. With the exception of Swastika Night (which has a rural setting and high rates of illiteracy to keep the populace ignorant) the other works are set in highly mechanized societies that encourage just about every other form of entertainment than reading, and there is a general shortage of books. Living in the in the turbulent climate of the early Twentieth century (two world wars, multiple revolutions and counter revolutions, social upheaval and unprecedented government power) impressed upon the authors the need to remind readers of what would come if present history was forgotten and too many personal freedoms were surrendered. Within the stories, few characters remember the past and besides the revolutionary protagonists, few in these nightmarish societies have any desire for the products of the past or inclination to reclaiming identity.  These dystopic worlds were the authors’ plea to their contemporaries to preserve history and cultural products, because their loss would leave the future populace subjected to totalitarian control in a world that is worse off, maybe not always materially, but certainly spiritually.

From Utopias to Dystopias

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the impulse behind writing a dystopia. Despite the direness of these dystopian stories, they were meant to serve a purpose, to inspire the reader to improve upon society, as utopias do. Utopias are considered science fiction because they do not often take place on Earth or in the present (some would merely call it pastoral if it did) and have existed free from a reliance on science to bring about its utopian paradise, starting with More’s Utopia. During the twentieth century, science and technology became a tool of the writer to demonstrate ways of improving the world, but in the wake of chemical weapons and new war machines, technical innovation came to be seen as a greater threat to humanity. Writers were worried about the loss of the human soul and common history in the face of science’s advancements paired with the political upheavals and totalitarian governments of the early Twentieth century. Carl Freedman notes, ‘Utopia can never be fixed in the perspective of the present, because it exists, to a considerable degree, in the dimension of futurity: not, however, in the future as the latter is imagined by bourgeois “progress,” but rather as the future is the objective of hope, of our deepest and most radical longings.’[3] If a writer creates a utopian society out of the humanitarian desire for a better world for mankind, then the act of creating a dystopia is inspired by the longing to prevent the world from descending down a perceived path of darkness by inspiring the public to improve their present society.

There are numerous influences for dystopian novels in the first half of the Twentieth century, from the World Wars to the many revolutions that toppled the old, traditional government and social structures. The crimes against humanity, the genocides and fascist governments, were real terrors that imprinted themselves on the common consciousness of readers.

The crushing of self by the system, the denial of individuality, is nowhere more savagely illustrated in our recent history than by the Second World War, especially by the concentration camps, […] We find in these records of historical experience many of the images which recur in post-war SF: the numbered inmates, the uniformed bodies, the suffocating routine, the omnivorous machinery of death.[4]

In the fictional worlds, the populations subjected to dehumanized, totalitarian rule are controlled through their ignorance of these past events. During the rise of Hitler, the world was bombarded with images of bonfires, the burning of books that offended Nazi sensibilities. From Russia came the Five Years Plans, organizing people and production according to numbers that benefited the state, regardless of consequences for the individual. The authors, familiar with historical events and their contemporary societies, are relying on the readers to recognize the parallels in the dystopian worlds (it would be difficult to find any critic who called dystopic fiction ‘subtle’) to remember the horrors of the past – or present – and fight their return.

It is this rebellion against controlling governments (by a single individual or larger group) and the reclamation of lost history and culture that dominates these novels. While authors are warning against the mechanization of society, it is the government’s control over and use of the technology that is the real threat. If the government controls the dissemination of information, then they can shape the past and present however they please. If the government controls you (possibly from your very conception) then it controls the person you may become, shaped as they please. John Clute explains, ‘animosity against specific political programmes was the most important force provoking early dystopian visions,’ which negates the utopians ‘generalized faith in the idea of progress, both social and technological.’[5] The Western world in the early Twentieth century saw the rise of eugenics and the crimes against humanity that ensued. People were reduced to numbers and figures, calculated and ordered like machines. They saw censorship, fascism and collectivization, all of which tried to erase or rewrite history, and those who watched from the outside were horrified.

To attempt to read the great dystopian works as merely predictors of the future lessens the value of the work’s message. As Freedman puts it, ‘the negative utopias of modern literature – We (1921), Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – are drained of much of their power if we attempt to read them as complexly critical estrangements of certain actual tendencies in Soviet and Anglo-American society, but instead as factual futurology, rating Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell as though they were contestants in a guessing game.’[6] The authors of these dystopias were trying desperately to warn against these negative social developments they perceived, and would have been horrified if any of their visions came to pass; it would have been a failure on their part to properly warn the public. It would have meant people had forgotten their history.

Zamyatin and We

Once a leader of post-revolutionary Russia’s writers, Zamyatin – who opposed the push towards total social unanimity – wrote against the grain of the party line, his works were banned and he was exiled from the country. For this, he himself fell victim to his own warnings: ‘Like the rebellious poet of We […] he was literally “liquidated” – reduced to nonbeing. His name was deleted from literary history’.[7] In We, ‘Zamyatin could turn for models of his dystopia to the early experiments in social engineering conducted by the Bolsheviks.’[8] As for metaphorical historical parallels, the Benefactor deity of the story is Lenin, while the Guardians are the USSR’s Cheka[9]. Zamyatin was extremely prescient about the world to come, and only in retrospect can We be truly appreciated for its warning about totalitarian government control. The characters are not given the benefit of names, only numbers; they don’t have families, are raised in groups, and copulation is only granted with pink coupons at an appointed hour. It is almost farcical, the degree to which the government controls society and has erased the uniqueness of individuals, but this was undoubtedly Zamyatin’s goal, meant to parody the Bolshevik’s revolutionary government.

The main character, D-503 tells the story through his journal (‘record’ as its referred to in the translation) which he believes to be his own sort of poetry, meant to praise the One State. There is a contradiction of facts disseminated by the government from a quoted proclamation on page one: ‘One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subdued the entire terrestrial globe to the power of the One State.’[10] This cannot be the case, though, because outside the city’s green walls is an untamed forest inhabited by free men (considered hairy and atavistic by D-503), who join with rebel ‘numbers’ from the city and revolt against the Benefactor and the entropic order of the One State.

What does this society know of the past? As D-503 puts it, ‘it is clear that the entire history of mankind, insofar as we know it, is the history of transition from nomadic to increasingly settled forms of existence. […] People rushed about from one end of the earth to the other only in prehistoric times, when there were nations, wars, commerce, discoveries of all sorts of Americas.’[11] This is a rather narrow, incomplete history given to the One State’s inhabitants, propaganda meant to support the controlled, static environment in which they live. D-503 mentions their knowledge of the ancient ‘irrational’ Christian religion, and how the sacrifices (executions) carried out on behalf of the Benefactor are ‘a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.’[12] History has been utilized to justify and rationalize public executions of any dissident (in this case, a heretical poet) – to the point where even the condemned willingly go without the need to be restrained because they have been trained to accept this. The only literature (as it is) which has been passed down to them is “The Railway Guide” for its meticulous organization, influencing the Tables, which schedule out every hour of the numbers’ lives. Individuals have no unscheduled time, cannot deviate from the Tables, and have no say in the running of their government (beyond having to unanimously reelect the Benefactor occasionally). To stop the brewing revolt, the Benefactor orders a surgical procedure for everyone to remove the imagination, just as Zamyatin and his fellow writers were ordered by the Bolshevik government to censor their own imaginative works to benefit the state.

The end of the book seems to be a reflection of Zamyatin’s own hopes for history, that the revolution in Russian was not over yet, and that the forces of the individual would eventually triumph over the collectivism he so detested. We was a warning to his fellows of what Russia may become if the Bolshevik’s remained in power, pushing for a static, least-common-denominator society.

Huxley and Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World stands apart from the other dystopias discussed here due to its dry, at times sarcastic, tone. The greatest warning of the book is ‘how far we must sacrifice our individuality in the face of proliferating technology, and how far we should push the quest for pleasure.’[13]Bernard Marx and his contemporaries are swallowed up and stifled by their society, which requires a uniformity of beliefs. But just as importantly, the novel puts forward Huxley’s views of the subjectivity of history, that it is used and abused to influence the masses.

The industrial revolution served to influence Huxley’s view of the potential for a society mechanized down to the individual, most especially the advancements made by Henry Ford in the automobile industry. ‘Ford’ has become a sort of deity to the World State, embracing Ford’s own words: ‘History is bunk,’ as the Controlled Mustapha Mond explained to a class of children;

He waved his hand; and it was as though, with a little feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; […] Whisk – and where was Odysseus and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk – and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom – all were gone.[14]

Mond is the aloof, powerful, all-knowing character, like the Knight Von Hess, who through his position is permitted to indulge in history and forgotten culture: ‘There were those strange rumours of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry – Ford knew what.’[15] In a society dominated by the pursuit of pleasure, the old stories of war, religion, struggle and strife (no matter their literary value) would serve only to upset the population and social balance, and thus they are banned – ‘pornographic’ as the Controller Mond calls them in his discussion with John.[16] Their entire civilization relies on individuals following in lock step; no innovative ideas, no self-sufficiency or philosophizing.

By controlling the education of every individual through the use of hypnopaedia and Pavlovian conditioning, every person in their class – from Alpha pluses to Epsilons – is conditioned with the same thoughts, denied real independent will. Children are taught to fear books by use of electric shock and loud sirens. Reading old books might give people the wrong ideas, ideas that conflict with the State. The Director notes happily, ‘the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. […] But these suggestions are our suggestions! […] Suggestions from the State.”[17] Someone with this man’s power may be afforded some free will and thought, but not those lower in social ranking, who must be conditioned to accept the status they were born into (were created for). To break from conventional unity means therapy, a prescription for more soma, or possible exile to an island.

Personal past and identity are also discouraged, and when the Hatchery Director breaks this taboo to tell Bernard about his trip to the savage reservation, Bernard becomes uncomfortable. He knows the Director disapproves of discussion of the ‘remote past […] disapproved and yet had been betrayed into doing the forbidden thing.’[18] Not only is history denied and forgotten as detrimental to society, but even recalling personal history means asserting an individual identity and a real, certain history, a ‘forbidden thing’. There can be no past in a static world.

Huxley’s dystopia was based upon trends he detected during the inter-war period, including the rise of soviet Russia’s collectivization and forced unanimity, as well as Ford’s mechanized processes spreading to other industries. Because the World State ‘rejects everything, including literature, music, art and philosophy […] a state without a past’[19] there is nothing for the people to rally around and rebel against. It is a depressing ending because it offers no hope of change; the discontented are exiled and John the Savage commits suicide, unable to function in this world without history, literature or individuality.

Burdekin and Swastika Night

Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night is a frightening dystopia influenced by, and warning against, the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s. The loss of historical truths – and the rebellious nature of reclaiming them – in this world is central to the plot. The Nazis who have taken over the world have completely rewritten the past and eliminated literacy among the masses, because ‘information about the past and present is strictly controlled and manipulated by those in command. History, its knowledge, and memory are therefore dangerous elements that can give the dystopian citizens a potential instrument of resistance.’[20] Burdekin could only guess in 1937 about a coming war with Nazi Germany, but could no more predict its form and outcome any more than a military strategist. Swastika Night is not about alternative history, but an extrapolation of what a world ruled by Nazi party policy would look like.

Because personal identity is part of history, the conquered races have even had the practice of family names removed (Alfred’s ‘surname’ is E.W. 10762) so that there can be no filial memory or unity to encourage rebellion – this has been assisted, of course, by the relegation of women to the status of chattel. Burdekin was projecting from Hitler’s own views, as summarized by an OSS report on Hitler’s psychology: ‘His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.’[21] This ‘big lie’ is what the entire basis of Burdekin’s dystopia becomes; all of history before the supposed Twenty Year war, and much of the century afterwards is completely rewritten, and no one but Von Hess and Alfred know any differently. But a character such as Hermann, so thoroughly a part of the system, cannot accept ‘alternatives’ and is broken down by the history Von Hess reveals. The world seems beyond repair from this Big Lie.

Removing history requires removing its records, and Burdekin was undoubtedly influenced by the Nazi’s massive burning of supposedly degenerate (mostly Jewish and communist) books in May of 1933. The Knight Von Hess wrote his entire book from memory, because all other books were destroyed, and ‘He thought […] the time might come when men would again seek passionately for truth.’[22] Burdekin is making it very clear that for seven hundred years this German Empire has existed because of the propagation of lies and the deletion of history. ‘The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history.[23]’ Burdekin’s Nazi empire has removed the books, the architecture and cultural products of every other civilization under their influence, and without cultural progress, they are ‘dead’.[24]

Orwell and 1984

What is ‘memory’ in 1984? A hole, that leads to an incinerator. There is no memory or history but that which the Party approves of, and is changed on a daily basis to suit Party needs.  Indeed, one of the Party slogans is ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’[25] The protagonist, Winston Smith, struggles to recall his own history, to find some true history in the world. For this quest, and the actions it leads him to, Winston is captured, tortured and reprogrammed by the Ministry of Love. O’Brien informs Winston, ‘You will be lifted clean out from the stream of history. […] Nothing will remain of you; not a name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as the future.’[26] The purpose of these measures is to prevent the general populace from being inspired by martyrs to rebel against the controlling powers. As history is rewritten, so are the people, all to conform to Party standards.

Winston Smith’s profession is to rewrite history so that is remains constant with the present. If the current Oceania conflict is with Eurasia, then it has always been so, and vice versa. As O’Brian explains during Winston’s interrogation, ‘Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which makes mistakes […] Whatever the party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.’[27] Orwell’s Oceania is derived from the observations he made of totalitarianism in the Spanish Civil War and Stalinist Russia, including the purge trials in the USSR that rewrote history in order to convict old Bolshevik revolutionaries who had fallen out of favour. There are multiple historical parallels being utilized; Trotsky as Goldstien, the gulag as the Thought Police, the Hitler Youth as the Youth League and the Spies, but of course there is no history in Oceania before the party to be brought up.

The erasure of personal history is part of the removal of identity, so that individuals are absorbed into the party fold. Winston struggles to simultaneously remember and forget his own past: ‘He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been like this’[28] – a London that is decrepitly run down from constant war and deprivation. When starting his diary, Winston cannot even be sure if the year is actually 1984, cannot even pinpoint the actual year of his birth. The memory of his family is just as clouded. In this world, children are conditioned to turn in family members who appear disloyal, thought Winston sadly recalls his mother from an ‘ancient time […] when there was still privacy, love and friendship’ and she died for ‘a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable.’[29] Orwell’s inclusion of this particular language describes the threat to the Party: citizens cannot be loyal to the family and to the government simultaneously, their loyalty must be completely to the Party. So memory of family, a sense of individuality and filial devotion, must be eliminated in favour of obedience to Big Brother.

Of the messages in 1984, Aldiss asks, ‘To whom is its warnings directed? To the voters? If so, then it is an anti-prophetic book, in that the less this fictional world becomes reality – even after the test date – the better Orwell will have succeeded in his purpose.’[30] This novel has perhaps had the most pervasive influence on society, with terms such as ‘doublethink’ and ‘Big Brother’ becoming synonymous with these warnings, keeping readers aware of Orwell’s message. As Fredric Jameson summarizes, ‘the most haunting feature of 1984 is the elegiac sense of the loss of the past, and the uncertainty of memory. The rewriting of political history in Oceania is assimilated to the personal dreams of a lost childhood.’[31] Orwell saw the totalitarian disintegration of states and was warning the reading public to not give in to censorship or rewritten history.

Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451

The last dystopia examined here is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a world where the pursuit of pleasure dominates the population, and the ignorance of history (under the guise of maintaining mental parity) is enforced by burning books. Contemporary issues heavily influenced Bradbury’s novel as ‘The censorship of books which dealt with socialism, eroticism, and sexuality in the early 1950s made the extension of Montag’s actions conceivable.’[32] The memory of Nazi book burning and the rise of television and other technological media impressed upon Bradbury the dangers of people losing themselves in fantasy worlds and willingly giving up knowledge and history.

Firemen themselves have a distorted history, and no books, no records, to correct the perversion of the world ‘fireman.’ The official story is that the firemen were ‘Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin.’[33] (This is a doubly significant twisting of facts, as Benjamin Franklin did organize the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia and founded the first public lending library.) There is no recollection of classic literature, philosophy and history beyond the rebellious Montag and Faber and the ‘books’ hidden in the woods, leaving a population of babbling children incapable of thinking beyond their own petty comforts in a world of starving people. Montag lays out the argument for the preservation of knowledge to his wife: ‘Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!’[34] In the end, a nuclear explosion has wiped away the decadent city, and Granger laments, ‘We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them’[35]– in other words, Bradbury is hoping that the memory of the past (and in his case, present) will prevent further degradation of the world.

Another aspect of the erasure of individuality is the unproductiveness of the population. Mildred only plays with her make-believe ‘family’ on the wall screens, while Montag and the firemen only destroy literature and homes. Among juveniles, breaking windows and wrecking cars is considered a pastime. Education has become anything but, a babysitting service full of television programmes and exhausting physical activities, with no actual learning or critical analysis. Universal leisure dominates this society, precluding the development of the individual soul, and those like Clarisse who try fall victim to the demand for the least common denominator. Granger offers Bradbury’s moral at the end: ‘Everyone must leave something behind when he dies […] A child or a book or a painting […] Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die’.[36] Without a thinking, productive citizenry, without an honest history, this society seems to have no soul, no ability to learn from mistakes and stop the nuclear wars. Bradbury’s warning was directed at an America he perceived to be losing touch with its past and the world, too engrossed in television and movies.


The history being utilized in these dystopias is the present for the authors, their warning about the shape of things to come if the world does not change. Raffaella Baccolini best sums up the importance of history to dystopia: ‘history is central and necessary for the development of resistance and the maintenance of hope, even when it is a dystopian history that is remembered.’[37] Honesty about the past, so as not to forget both the triumphs and mistakes of old, is emphasized, along with personal honesty and identity. In these dystopias, those who see themselves as independent of the state and the static/ declining civilization are the rebels who seek after or possess information about the past. These authors are imploring their readers to keep the past alive, to keep their sense of self alive and to take stock of their present world, to ensure that the dire events being portrayed never come to pass.

[1] Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night (New York: The Feminist Press, 1985), p. 79.

[2] Robert S. Baker, Brave New World: History, Science and Dystopia (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990), p.46.

[3] Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), p. 64.

[4] Scott Sanders, ‘Characterization in science fiction: Two approaches – 1. The disappearance of character’ in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Longman, 1979), p. 134.

[5] John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Orbit, 1999), p.361

[6] Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction, p. 55.

[7] Mirra Ginsburg, ‘Introduction’ in We by Yevgeny Zemyatin (New York: Bantam, 1972), translated by Mirra Ginsburg. p. xx.

[8] Scott Sanders, ‘Characterization in science fiction: Two approaches – 1. The disappearance of character’ in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Longman, 1979), p. 134.

[9] The first police force formed after the October Revolution, the precursor to the KGB, they were the spies and enforcers of the Bolshevik’s doctrine during the turbulent Red Terror and civil war.

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 1.

[11] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 11.

[12] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 46.

[13] Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree (London: Paladin, 1988), p. 229.

[14] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1989), p. 34.

[15] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 34.

[16] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 237.

[17] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 28.

[18] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 96.

[19] Robert S. Baker, Brave New World: History, Science, and Dystopia, p. 91.

[20] Rafaella Baccolini, ‘”A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past”: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling’, in Dark Horizons, ed. by Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini (New York and London: Routeldge, 2003). p. 155.

[21] Walter C. Langer. A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend. (Washington, DC: Office of Strategic Services), p. 51. <http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/h/hitler-adolf/oss-papers/text/oss-profile-03-02.html&gt;

[22] Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night, p. 74.

[23] Milan Kundera quoted in “’A Useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past” by Rafaelle Baccolini, p. 125

[24] Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night, p. 121.

[25] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1981), p. 204

[26] George Orwell, 1984, p. 210.

[27] George Orwell, 1984, p. 205.

[28] George Orwell, 1984, p. 7.

[29] George Orwell, 1984, p. 28.

[30] Brian Aldiss, The Trillion Year Spree, p. 303

[31] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007), p. 200

[32] Jack Zipes, ‘Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury’s Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451’ in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ed. by Eric S. Rabkin, et. al. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), p. 184.

[33] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (London: Flamingo, 1993), p. 42.

[34] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, p. 81.

[35] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, p. 171.

[36] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, p. 164.

[37] Rafaella Baccolini, ‘”A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past”: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling’, in Dark Horizons, ed. by Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini (New York and London: Routeldge, 2003). p. 116.

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