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Great and Small

Entry updated 21 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

One of the commonest fantastic devices in literature and legend is the alteration of scale. Mythology and folklore abound with giants and miniature humans, and different perspectives dependent upon changes of scale are central to many of the Satires recognized today as works of Proto SF, most notably Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) and Voltaire's Micromegas (in Le Micromégas de Mr. de Voltaire ..., coll 1752; trans anon 1753). Mark Twain's uncompleted works include "Three Thousand Years among the Microbes" (written 1905; in Which Was the Dream?, coll 1967), in which a germ called Huck inhabits the body of a tramp, recalling Morgan Robertson's earnest medical fantasy "The Battle of the Monsters" (in Where Angels Fear to Tread, coll 1899). Modern satires using distortion of scale in other ways include Joe Orton's Head to Toe (1971), J G Ballard's "The Drowned Giant" (in The Terminal Beach, coll 1964; vt "Souvenir" May 1965 Playboy) and Jessamyn West's The Chilekings (1967). The first Scientific Romance of the microcosm was "The Diamond Lens" (January 1858 Atlantic Monthly) by Fitz-James O'Brien, in which a scientist discovers a tiny humanoid woman in a water-drop. The tactic of shrinking human beings to insect-size (see Miniaturization) in order that they may observe the small-scale wonders of the natural world is common in didactic sf, ranging from Alfred Taylor Schofield's Travels in the Interior (1887) as by Luke Courteney, through Edwin Pallander's The Adventures of a Micro-Man (1902) and Bob Olsen's "The Ant with a Human Soul" (Spring-Summer 1932 Amazing Stories Quarterly), to Donald Suddaby's Lost Men in the Grass (1940) as by Alan Griff. More ambitious didactic microcosmic fantasies can be found in George Gamow's Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom (1944). Adventure stories in which humans are pitted against giant insects and monstrous spiders are commonplace, ranging from Sara Coleridge's curious fantasy Phantasmion (1837) through the stories assembled in Murray Leinster's The Forgotten Planet (1920-1953 var mags; fixup 1954) to the series begun with Spider World: The Tower (1987) by Colin Wilson; a duel with a spider is the high point of the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) based on Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man (1956). Characters subjected to extreme Miniaturization are pitted against ferocious micro-organisms in William Tenn's "Winthrop was Stubborn" (August 1957 Galaxy as "Time Waits for Winthrop"; vt in Time in Advance, coll 1958) and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001-2002; graph 2002).

The idea that there might be worlds within worlds was popularized by the Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom as a tiny "solar system" with electrons orbiting the nucleus. The notion that all the atoms of our Universe might be solar systems in their own right, and all of our Universe's solar systems themselves atoms in a macrocosm, was developed by several writers, appearing first in The Triuneverse (1912) by R A Kennedy. An example of subatomic adventure with this rationale is "The World of the Vanishing Point" (March 1922 Strand) by James Barr. The Pulp-magazine writer who made the theme his own was Ray Cummings, whose works in this vein include the microcosmic romances The Girl in the Golden Atom (stories 5 March 1919, 24 January-24 February 1920 All-Story Weekly; fixup 1921), The Princess of the Atom (14 September-19 October 1929 Argosy All-Story Weekly and Argosy; 1950) and Beyond the Vanishing Point (March 1931 Astounding; 1958) and the macrocosmic romance Explorers into Infinity (April-June 1927 Weird Tales; 1965). Other pulp writers who borrowed the theme from Cummings include Harl Vincent, for "Microcosmic Buccaneers" (November 1929 Amazing), S P Meek for "Submicroscopic" (August 1931 Amazing), Donald Wandrei for "Colossus" (January 1934 Astounding), Jack Williamson for "The Galactic Circle" (August 1935 Astounding) and Festus Pragnell for The Green Man of Kilsona (July-September 1935 Wonder Stories as "The Green Man of Graypec"; 1936; vt The Green Man of Graypec 1950). Numerous other pulp-sf stories featured miniaturized men, including "A Matter of Size" (April 1934 Astounding) by Harry Bates, "He Who Shrank" (August 1936 Amazing) by Henry L Hasse, whose protagonist is both giant and miniature man while shrinking through a whole series of worlds-within-worlds, "Fury from Lilliput" (August 1949 Thrilling Wonder; vt The Unknown 1952 chap) by Murray Leinster, "Chaos in Miniature" (February 1952 Authentic) by H J Campbell, and the classic "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy) by James Blish.

Despite the inherent logical flaws in the notion (to do with the relationships between mass, strength and organic complexity) the idea of human Miniaturization has retained sufficient fascination to encourage writers to continue to fudge the issue; it crops up in such novels as Atta (1953) by Francis Rufus Bellamy, Cold War in a Country Garden (1971) by Lindsay Gutteridge and The Men Inside (1973) by Barry N Malzberg, and in such films as Dr Cyclops (1940), The Incredible Shrinking Man, Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Innerspace (1987). The process of fudging can be ingenious, sometimes recruiting the notion of the expanding Universe, as in the playful "Prominent Author" (May 1954 If) by Philip K Dick – where a modern man who Timeslips to the pre-Christian era encounters tiny, less "expanded" humans – and Land of Dreams (1987) by James P Blaylock. An interesting attempt to accommodate the microcosmic romance to slightly more recent atomic theory is "Nor Iron Bars" (November 1957 Infinity Science Fiction) by James Blish, whose Faster-than-Light Spaceship finds itself within a weird solar system that proves to be a carbon atom.

An intriguing recomplication of the theme involves the depiction of miniature worlds whose time-flow is more rapid than ours, as in "The Pygmy Planet" (February 1932 Astounding) by Jack Williamson, "Microcosmic God" (April 1941 Astounding) by Theodore Sturgeon, Edge of Time (1958) by David Grinnell (Donald A Wollheim) and Dragon's Egg (1980) by Robert L Forward. The last of these is set on a Neutron Star, the rapid time-flow (see Time Distortion) being a consequence of a biochemistry based on the strong nuclear force rather than organic life's relatively feeble electromagnetic (chemical) interactions. Miniature worlds constructed for specific purposes are featured in "The Tunnel Under the World" (January 1955 Galaxy) by Frederik Pohl and Counterfeit World (1964; vt Simulacron-3 1964) by Daniel F Galouye.

Giants are usually treated less sympathetically than very tiny characters, for obvious reasons; the oversized heroes of The Food of the Gods (1904) by H G Wells and Titan's Daughter (1961) by James Blish are notable exceptions. The giant Aliens in Raymond F Jones's The Alien (1951) and Blish's The Warriors of Day (1953) are menacing, although the one in Joseph Green's Gold the Man (1971; vt The Mind Behind the Eye) is not. In films which invert the theme of The Incredible Shrinking Man, including The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) (see Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman), the central characters become figures of menace, although the titular giant woman of The Thirty Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959) is merely perceived (wrongly) as menacing. The charismatically gargantuan star of King Kong (1933) has always generated sympathy, as have his inferior successor Son of Kong (1933), his imitator Mighty Joe Young (1949; vt Mr Joseph Young of Africa) and his saurian rival Gojira or Godzilla.

When human beings must live as Wainscot Society scavengers in worlds populated by Alien giants, as in Kenneth Bulmer's Demon's World (1964; vt The Demons), William Tenn's Of Men and Monsters (October 1963 Galaxy as "The Men in the Walls"; exp 1968) and the television series Land of the Giants, they are the obvious heroes; but when humans are the giants sympathy usually attaches to the midget aliens, even when – as in A Bertram Chandler's "Giant Killer" (October 1945 Astounding) – they are not humanoid. Unexpectedly tiny Aliens and their miniature Spaceships offer communications problems in Katherine MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" (August 1951 Galaxy) and Jack McDevitt's Infinity Beach (2000; vt Slow Lightning 2000); still tinier nonhumans evolved from Earthly ants operate on the subatomic scale in Philip E High's These Savage Futurians (1967 dos). In one troubling (for the protagonist) episode of John Scalzi's Old Man's War (2005), human super-soldiers must combat technologically advanced but inch-high foes, chiefly by stamping on them. The notion of social stratification based on more moderate differences of size is cleverly developed in the fantasies of Sharon Baker set on the planet Naphar, including Quarrelling, They Met the Dragon (1984). Aristocratic "exultants" in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) are literally taller than the common folk.

John Christopher's The Little People (1967) is the most science-fictional of the many notable juvenile fantasies which feature tiny races living fugitive lives in the human world; others include T H White's Mistress Masham's Repose (1946) and the two series begun with The Borrowers (1952) by Mary Norton (1903-1992) and Truckers (1989) by Terry Pratchett. By far the best modern fantasy to include aspects of microcosmic romance is John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), and it is to the realms of Fantasy that most of the themes dealing with microcosms and macrocosms really belong. [BS/DRL]

see also: Cosmology; Fantastic Voyages; Under the Sea.

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