Torture

Tagged: Theme

The darker side of sf and fantasy has produced many inventive torture devices, such as the fantasticated apparatus in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (in The Gift, anth dated 1843 but 1842) and Franz Kafka's The Penal Colony (1919 chap; trans 1933). The torments of the Spanish Inquisition, as luridly imagined in Poe's story, are revisited in Patricia Anthony's God's Fire (1997). George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) knowingly tailors the means of torture to the individual – the dread Room 101 contains whatever one most fears, which for the protagonist is rats – and articulates the sense that this infliction of pain is not utilitarian but something which oppressors do simply because they can: "The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power." Torture is a frequent feature of Dystopias, including the black comedy Brazil (1985). A harrowing sequence of advanced scientific tortures is imposed on a viewpoint character in Lois McMaster Bujold's Mirror Dance (1994).

Sf torture often involves direct stimulation of the body's pain sensors. This is achieved with physical electrodes in – to name one of many examples – Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984) by Charles Harness. Victims in Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) have their nervous systems woven into carpets etc, suffering whenever walked on; the villain of Jack Vance's Night Lamp (1996) links a musical instrument with a woman's auditory nerves to torture her with intolerable sound. Less intrusive nerve stimulation implies some form of induction: pain-inducing Rays such as the neuronic whip in The Currents of Space (October-December 1952 Astounding; 1952) by Isaac Asimov, or the pain box used to test the young hero's self-control in Dune (fixup 1965) by Frank Herbert. Torture by neural stimulation for once goes awry in Chester Anderson's comic-psychedelic The Butterfly Kid (1967), where an Alien punishment machine subjects the hero to such experiences as "the complete adventures of Donald Duck, 3V, wide screen, with full sensory participation."

Coercion by remotely-controlled infliction of intense pain is another standard trope, seen for example in John Iggulden's Breakthrough (1960), Colin Kapp's The Patterns of Chaos (February-May/June 1972 If; 1972) and Philip E High's Speaking of Dinosaurs (1974). Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996) is subjected to sophisticated Virtual Reality tortures.

Such simulated agonies are echoed in Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos (omni 1990), where the anguish of many victims proves to be intended as bait for a merciful God; in Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon (2002), whose male protagonist is re-embodied (in Virtual Reality) as a young woman presumed more susceptible to extreme interrogation; and in Iain M Banks's Surface Detail (2010), featuring elaborate VR hells whose Uploaded victims suffer endless punishment for their supposed sins. Some subtler forms of psychological torture are discussed under Time Distortion. Torture is the gateway to transcendent out-of-the-body experiences in Jack London's The Jacket (14 February-10 October 1914 Los Angeles Examiner: American Sunday Monthly Magazine; 1915; vt The Star Rover 1915), and in Flight into Yesterday as above.

Perhaps the oddest sf example of torture is the sadistic flagellation, in Frank Herbert's Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970), of an impalpable Alien "Caleban" who (or one of whose aspects) is a sentient Star (see Living Worlds).

A subtler torment occasionally invoked in sf and in borderline-sf thrillers is that of Sensory Deprivation (which see).

Scenarios with a flavour of Medieval Futurism are apt to contain a guild or caste of torturers, like the Divulgers of Sherri S Tepper's King's Blood Four (1983), whose modest Psi Powers equip them for their unpleasant role. The most famous and subtly imagined sf torture organization is the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) – one of whose ancient mechanisms is a homage to Kafka. Terry Pratchett's Small Gods (1992) reflects the banality of evil through torturers (in the service of a twisted Religion) who are good family men with World's Greatest Daddy mugs for their well-earned tea breaks.

Torture is built into the cruel legal system of The Book of the New Sun and was an essential part of the old Chinese jurisprudence in which a confession was required before formal sentencing, as entertainingly presented in the Judge Dee historical detective novels by Robert van Gulik (1910-1967). Jack Vance's Maske: Thaery (1976) features a semi-privatized justice system whereby state magistrates can be petitioned to approve torture inflicted by such entities as the Faithful Retribution Company: the protagonist finds himself wrongfully sentenced to a "Well-Merited Extreme" climaxing with "thirteen applications of the bone-breaker". Contemporary use of torture by avowed democracies – often masked by weasel-word terms like "extraordinary rendition" – is addressed in several sf novels of the present century. Brian Aldiss's HARM (2007), Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel (2007) and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008) feature covert interrogation and torture facilities set respectively in London, Scotland and California, all to bleakly plausible effect; Patrick Ness's The Ask and the Answer (2009) unsparingly examines this and other manifestations of state-sponsored terror in a colony-world setting. [DRL]

see also: The Butterfly Effect (2004); J M Coetzee; Frederick Dunstan; The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

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