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Conrad, Joseph

Entry updated 21 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1857-1924) Polish-born author, in the UK mercantile marine from 1878 to 1894, a UK citizen from 1886, changing his name at that point from Józef Teodor Konrad Naleçz Korzeniowski to Joseph Conrad. For much of his life he laboured under the misprision of his early reputation as a teller of "mere" sea tales; but in later life he gained commercial success, and increasingly after World War Two he received wide attention for the more complex works of his maturity, like Nostromo (1904) and The Secret Agent (1907). Though it is not sf (see Equipoise), Heart of Darkness (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine as "The Heart of Darkness"; in Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories, coll 1902; 1925), is a dense and potently shaped Club Story in which culture-guilt in general, and scathing glimpses of colonialism at work in particular, combine immiscibly into a portrait of the abyss of Africa (see Imperialism; for alienation and vastation see Horror in SF). Before World War One, the tale ranked low in esteem among Conrad's works, perhaps because its savage repudiation (and indeed mirror reversal) of Imperial Gothic Paranoias about the nature of the world took some time to become visible to those it exposed. A Graphic Novel version – Heart of Darkness (graph 2010) adapted by Catherine Anyango and David Zane Mairowitz – destructively treats Marlow as Conrad's mouthpiece, suffocating at root the threatening resonance of the work; rather more fruitfully, the text has more than once served as a model for works by modern writers and filmmakers, including Jack London's "The Red One" (October 1918 Cosmopolitan), Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief (1932), J G Ballard's The Drowned World (1962), Michael Bishop's Transfigurations (1979), James Blish's "A Dusk of Idols" (March 1961 Amazing), the surreally fantasticated but not sf Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Headhunter (1993) by Timothy Findley, Paul J McAuley's White Devils (2004), Ian McDonald's Brasyl (2007), Lucius Shepard's Kalimantan (1990), Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970), Eben Venter's Horrelpoot (2006; trans Luke Stubbs as Trencherman 2008), Joanna Sinisalo's Birdbrain (2008), Ad Astra (2019) directed by James Gray, and others, all driven by similar concerns: whenever an sf explorer or supplicant comes across a ravaged cod-godling "white man" in the tropical heart of an alien planet (or of this one), or is forced to audit an ultimately imponderable Antihero whose horror colours the world, Conrad's memory has shaped the tale. Another story, "The Secret Sharer" (August-September 1910 Harper's; in 'Twixt Land and Sea: Tales, coll 1912), has been similarly embraced, though less frequently: for example by (again) Robert Silverberg in The Secret Sharer (September 1987 Asimov's; 1988).

With Ford Madox Ford, who then still signed his books Ford Madox Hueffer, Conrad wrote one tale of direct sf interest, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901); the people of the title represent a cognate race of humans, the "Dimensionists", Mysterious Strangers who will come to supersede ordinary mankind. Though the novel is primarily political Satire in its projection of the cold, practical, manipulative humans of the future – whose scheme to colonize Greenland echoed contemporary plans to develop the Belgian Congo, where "Heart of Darkness" is set – it is genuine sf in its use of themes of other Dimensions and Evolution; the extra-dimensional Trespassers in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006) are clearly derived from the Dimensionists of this tale. [JC]

Józef Teodor Konrad Naleçz Korzeniowski/Joseph Conrad

born Berdyczów, Ukraine: 3 December 1857

died Bishopsbourne, Kent: 3 August 1924

works (selected)

about the author

Critical works on Conrad are very numerous, but normally focus on aspects of his career not dealt with here; we list an extremely small sample.


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