Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 15 May 2023. Tagged: Theme.

A number of historical, fictional and mythical characters have acquired iconic status in sf. Most such figures from myth and Religion have their proper home in Fantasy, but nevertheless appear repeatedly in sf and Science Fantasy – not only Shaggy God Stories but subtler rationalizations or reworkings of legend. In this category are Adam and Eve, Christ, God and the Devil (see Gods and Demons), King Arthur, and the Wandering Jew. Through traditionally ghastly, a personified Death becomes sympathetic in Terry Pratchett's Discworld and Neil Gaiman's Sandman sequences; and likewise, with Science and Sorcery trappings, in Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse (1983). Relevant fictional characters who have become icons in their own right, both inside and outside sf, include the Frankenstein Monster and his Scientist creator, Dracula (see Vampires), Fu Manchu (see Yellow Peril), the great ape King Kong, Sherlock Holmes, Svengali (see George du Maurier; Hypnosis), Tarzan, Batman and Superman. More distantly, William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) established several enduring archetypes – Prospero the proto-Scientist, Miranda his beautiful daughter, Ariel and Caliban the nonhuman servitors, all in a remote Island setting – who echo and re-echo through older sf, most famously in Forbidden Planet (1956). The not unkindly bull-man warden of Cordwainer Smith's Prison world in "A Planet Named Shayol" (October 1961 Galaxy) recalls a far older hybrid guardian, the Minotaur. Such precursors have been termed Underliers [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

Perhaps most interesting are the historical personages who are repeatedly invoked in sf. Often these are Scientists, proto-scientists, inventors or speculators about the future. Examples with their own entries in this encyclopedia include Charles Babbage, Roger Bacon, John Dee, Ada Lovelace and Leonardo da Vinci. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is a favourite scientist archetype – an AI Einstein features in Frederik Pohl's Heechee sequence – and even influenced the Pulp Cliché of the Mad Scientist, of whom Kingsley Amis remarked in New Maps of Hell (1960): "His Einstein haircut should be taken as a tribute to the universality of that great figure." The maverick inventor Nikola Tesla is frequently portrayed in sf as a creator of bizarre Steampunk-era Inventions. The major role of Alan Turing (1912-1954) in the formative days of Computers and computer science, coupled with his brutal persecution as a homosexual, has led to several homages – Greg Bear's "Tangents" (January 1986 Omni) and Greg Egan's "Oracle" (July 2000 Asimov's) are notable examples – and a near-Cliché tendency to introduce AI Turing simulations, as for example in one of the fiction segments of Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979). Further highly recognizable scientists, from Galileo (1564-1642) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727) to Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), make regular appearances in sf. For example, Newton, Einstein and Hawking meet in Virtual Reality in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Descent" (1993), and Galileo is central to Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream (2009).

Some writers have established themselves as sf icons on grounds of mythic stature rather than any specific sf content in their works: Lord Byron, for example, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Of unmistakable sf authors, H G Wells is probably the most often fictionalized (see Recursive SF), as in Christopher Priest's The Space Machine (1976) and many others. H P Lovecraft may be retrofitted as a seer or visionary by authors of Cthulhu Mythos sf: Colin Wilson does precisely this in The Mind Parasites (1967). The uncertainty surrounding the death of Ambrose Bierce has made him a minor icon of mystery, with several genre stories (see his entry) speculating about his fate.

Also of iconic note are various political leaders, most frequently Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) (see Hitler Wins; World War Two); another popular conqueror is Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is the goal of time travellers (see Time Travel) seeking to record a Lincoln speech in Wilson Tucker's The Lincoln Hunters (1958), and is recreated in Robot form in Philip K Dick's We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972). The life and untimely death of President John F Kennedy (1917-1963) are endlessly fascinating to writers of Alternate History, and a failed Kennedy assassination is a much-used Jonbar Point for the branching-off of another timeline. The Kennedy mythos also informs Richard Condon's Winter Kills (1974), with a merely Kennedy-like family; Barry Malzberg's The Destruction of the Temple (1974), with its obsessive future recreation of the 1963 assassination; and Mitchell Freedman's A Disturbance of Fate (2003), where it is Robert F Kennedy who evades death. J G Ballard generalizes the iconography across the broader US Media Landscape in "condensed novels" with such titles as "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (Autumn 1966 Ambit), "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (Spring 1967 Ambit), Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (Summer 1966 The Magazine of Poetry; 1968 chap) and "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe" (Spring 1966 Ambit). Another still-remembered media icon, for his physical appearance as well as his work in Cinema, is Alfred Hitchcock. Icons of music are numerous, those most often invoked including Elvis Presley (see for example Agent Elvis) and the Beatles. The Western tradition's need for a Hero or Antihero has granted a curious undeserved immortality to Billy the Kid.

Less personal icons of Disaster, evil and ill-omen also resonate through many fictions: among those with entries in this encyclopedia are the unknown killer Jack the Ripper, the Holocaust of World War Two, and the wreck of the Titanic.

Further authors who revel in densely iconic deployment of numerous historical characters, usually in an Alternate History context, are Guy Davenport and Howard Waldrop. [DRL]


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies