Islomania? Insularity? the Myth of the Island in British Science Fiction

By Kincaid, Paul | Extrapolation, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Islomania? Insularity? the Myth of the Island in British Science Fiction


Kincaid, Paul, Extrapolation


Utopia (1516) by Thomas More, The Tempest (c.1611) by William Shakespeare, New Atlantis (1627) by Francis Bacon, Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells, Deluge by S. Fowler Wright (1928), The Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding, Concrete Island (1974) by J. G. Ballard, A Dream of Wessex (1977) by Christopher Priest, Web (1974) by John Wyndham, The Wasp Factory (1984) by Iain Banks, The Scar (2002) by China Mieville ...

That is a brief list of some notable works in the history of British science fiction. (It is not the purpose of this paper to argue that all these titles necessarily are science fiction, but if pushed I would be happy to do so.) I could double the list, triple it; I could take just one author from that list, Christopher Priest, and produce another list: Indoctrinaire (1970), Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), Inverted World (1974), The Dream Archipelago (1979/1999), The Affirmation (1981)--and still everything I named would share one obvious characteristic: they are all island stories! "The island is a state of mind," J. G. Ballard said in an interview once (Burns and Sugnet 29). He was talking specifically about Concrete Island, but the remark has far wider implications. I want to look at those implications, and at why that state of mind seems so distinctively British.

Nicholas Ruddick, in his study of British science fiction appropriately entitled Ultimate Island (1993), proposed that: "the Island is a metaphor for the (at once) positive separateness and negative alienation of the Self from Other as well as for the predicament of humanity itself on its island world encircled by the indifferent--or hostile--ocean of space" (57). It's a good metaphor, but it has an almost universal application to the enterprise of science fiction. If Ruddick's notion held, we would expect islands to emerge as dominant metaphorical features wherever we found sf. We don't, however; the island is almost unknown in the metaphorical language of contemporary American or Australian sf. We can pluck out examples, Kim Stanley Robinson's A Short Sharp Shock (1990), the skein of islands in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books and perhaps Steve Erickson's Amnesiascope (1996) with its vision of Los Angeles cut off by rings of fire, but these are isolated examples, notable precisely because they are so rare. Nowhere outside Britain has the island become such a familiar, such an essential part of the imagery of science fiction that it passes almost unnoticed.

One simple explanation is that Britain is an island. America, it would thus be argued, is a place where the mythic power of the frontier has focused imaginative attention upon its wide interior landscapes penetrated by long river roads, and this has therefore provided the default setting for works from Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (1876) to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. Australia is a narrow veneer of civilization enclosing a vast, mysterious and threatening emptiness, which thus provides the metaphorical location of works from Terry Dowling's Rynosseros (1990) to George Turner's Down There in Darkness (1999). It is an attractive thesis, but in the end I think it is as subtle and sustainable as the notion that all British science fiction from The Day of the Triffids (1951) onwards is driven by loss of empire. We do not inhabit islands in our imagination for any simple, brute, geographical fact; as Ruddick says: "Britain is far too large, even from the familiar late-twentieth-century perspective of a jetliner at 35,000 feet, to be seen as an island" (57). No, we inhabit islands because of the imaginative dividend, in terms of mythic resonance, that they pay, and this has an historical and cultural basis.

I will be examining two basic contrasting responses to the island in British science fiction. Islomania: the island as dream state, the object of desire, the ideal; and insularity: the island as prison or fortress that holds us apart from the rest of the world, Shakespeare's famous "precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall" (Richard II Act 2, Scene 1). …

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