Alexander Selkirk, Christopher Priest, Daniel Defoe, H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard, Jane Mendelsohn, Johann Wyss, John Christopher, John Fowles, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nicholas Ruddick, R.M. Ballantyne, Rex Gordon, Robert Holdstock, S Fowler Wright, William Golding, William Shakespeare
This is another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. It first appeared in Vector 189 (September-October 1996).
The man was inside two crevices. There was first the rock, closed and not warm but at least not cold with the coldness of sea or air. The rock was negative. It confined his body so that here and there the shudders were beaten; not soothed but forced inward. He felt pain throughout most of his body but distant pain that was sometimes to be mistaken for fire.
Pincher Martin (1956)
When you think of life on a desert island, you get pictures in your mind of cannibals and pirates, of desolation and thirst. But at first it wasn’t at all like that for us. It really wasn’t bad … Anyone else stranded on a desert island would probably have wanted to die, but for him the nights had never been more beautiful, the wind more gentle, the sea more calm.
I Was Amelia Earhart (1996)
Between 1704 and 1709 the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned alone in the Juan Fernández Islands in the South Pacific. When he returned to civilisation he became an instant celebrity, his autobiography was published, his story became known throughout Britain, and he was interviewed by the leading journalist of his day, Daniel Defoe. Selkirk’s years on the island affected him, he built a cave in his garden where he lived, he sulked and raged at neighbours, he was such a tormented character that he was a menace to strangers and an embarrassment to his family. Yet when Defoe took his familiar story and transmuted it into the adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) it became the tale of how a true Englishman could master the elements by his resolution and entrepreneurial spirit.
There had been tales of castaways before, Shakespeare’s luckless characters were forever being cast upon strange shores and in The Tempest (1611) he created a memorable magical isle. But what was different about Robinson Crusoe was that the island itself became a protagonist. Before any other human characters intrude upon his story, Crusoe has already conquered the island, wresting from it a comfortable home, a suit of clothes, a steady supply of foods and luxuries. When Friday comes into his life it is only to extend the conquest, for Crusoe to convert primitive man as well as primitive land to the necessities of civilised life.
Thus Robinson Crusoe was not just the exemplar, it was the creator of a small but persistent literary genre, the robinsonade. Curious in that it is a sub-genre which crosses and re-crosses traditional genre boundaries, a form of fiction that can be at one moment the highest of high fantasy and the next the most realist of mainstream literature, the robinsonade is a romance which pitches man, in isolation, against his environment. Most commonly, robinsonades have told the story of characters thrust into some inimical landscape – most usually an island – where they not only survive, but actually re-establish the comforts of their normal lives. This is most noticeable in those robinsonades that have become established as children’s classics, such as Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (1812-13) and The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne (1857), which celebrate the power of the family to exert its civilising influences whatever it may encounter.
In science fiction, the robinsonade has been a consistent influence, often explicitly so as in Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (1956) or the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The island, whether an actual island or an island in space, an uninhabited planet, is an attractive setting partly for the simple, practical reason that it allows the writer to isolate his protagonist, but also because it allows utopias and anti-utopias to be developed. Adam and Eve on a depopulated planet – a post-atomic Earth, the sole survivors of a crashed spaceship – have recreated society countless times in the pages of science fiction magazines. The rational, can-do spirit exemplified by Crusoe is all that we ever need to rebuild our lives, and the safety and comfort we know today can not be lost forever.
But such optimism has not actually been common in science fiction, in a genre that celebrates the social success of humanity as much as the ingenuity of the individual, the loss of society is generally represented as a dark and threatening event. Islands are as likely to result in the triumph of the primitive as they are in a Crusoe-like triumph of civilisation. H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) is a place where the forces of Darwinism have a dehumanising effect in the isolation an island provides, and though S. Fowler Wright tried to counter that with The Island of Captain Sparrow (1928) in which morality stands against nature to load the scales in humanity’s favour the more common scientific view has been that nature is triumphant.
Thus William Golding created Lord of the Flies (1954) as a direct response to Ballantine’s Coral Island: this party of schoolboys marooned in isolation from their society will not allow family values to triumph but will regress to primitivism, violence and superstition. It is a notion echoed in J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). Both the traffic island between motorway embankments and the multistorey apartment block are islands in the midst of the sea of uncaring, fast-paced civilisation; they are islands of survival and the establishment of values just as Crusoe’s island was, but with the crucial difference that the values are specifically not those of the protagonist’s off-island society.
Implicit in the island as protagonist is the notion that the island becomes in itself a character, and if the hero is to reshape the island to suit himself, then the island becomes a mirror of his psyche. Thus the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies conjure their fears from the dead parachutist captured by the trees, while Maitland, swept up like technological flotsam on the Concrete Island, finds that it “was becoming an exact model of his head”. But this is perhaps most explicit in Golding’s Pincher Martin. The sailor, cradled by the “negative” rock is dead, though neither we nor he know that yet. His ship has been blown up during the war, and after a wild and disorienting tumble through the Atlantic waters he suddenly finds himself upon an island. It is too small, too barren for him to build any comfort or recreate any civilisation upon it, survival is an end in itself. But the very bleakness of the rock forces his pains in upon himself, and this is a metaphor for the way his memories, his life, are forced in upon him. What Pincher Martin is, in its brutal and unrelieved allegorical manner, is a recapitulation of that old saw: the dying man seeing his whole life flash before him. And this is one of the chief ways in which the island has been used in science fiction, its isolation, its small compass providing a physical shape for the mind, the experience of the protagonist. Sometimes, as in Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ sequence, it is a forest; sometimes, as in John Fowles’s Mantissa (1982), it is a white room; sometimes, as in Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex (1977) or The Affirmation (1981), it is a dreamscape; sometimes, as in John Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), it is an actual island: but the island, real or implied, provides an allegory for the human consciousness, the exploration of its landscape is a working out of the hero’s thoughts, feelings, his very humanity.
These examples are, notably, all British. In Ultimate Island (1993), Nicholas Ruddick has proposed that the island is one of the central linking threads that characterises British science fiction. It is not exclusively so, Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, in A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) takes his protagonist along a narrow sea-girt peninsula on a journey that seems in many ways to recapitulate that of Golding’s Pincher Martin. But it is true that American science fiction has not used the island as metaphor with anything like the same enthusiasm or the same bitter, allegorical intensity. (We are, after all, an island race; it serves us conveniently as a metaphor for our social as well as our personal and intellectual existence.)
But the American mainstream has continued to use the island in a manner closer to that originally employed by Defoe: as a figure for survival that isn’t just personal but also social and moral. In her recent fable, I Was Amelia Earhart, Jane Mendelsohn imagines the survival of the flyer who became an almost legendary figure in America between the wars before she and her navigator disappeared in the Pacific on an attempt to fly round the world. But here the island becomes not a battleground for survival but a haven for escape, a place where Amelia does not have to be a heroine, does not have to live up to the legend. The island allows her to live the life she wants for herself; like Ballard’s Maitland, it’s a simpler life, but like Defoe’s Crusoe it’s a civilised life.