Entry updated 14 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.
Islands play a crucial role in imaginative fiction, providing geographical microcosms in which the consequences of various types of scientific or political hypotheses may be incarnated and made available for inspection by visitors from the world at large. In sf, the more intense moments of psychological uncovering, when the soul is bared to the prison of the world – "To be born is to be wrecked on an island," J M Barrie, introducing the 1913 edition of R M Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858) – may well be avoided. When several societies are subject to inspection, authors may choose to expand their venues from a single island to an Archipelago. The archetypal island venue may be the hypnotically Iconic Atlantis, mentioned as early as the time of ancient Greece by the philosopher Plato. Many an island has played host to a Utopia, including Thomas More's Utopia itself (1516 in Latin; trans 1551), Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia (1942) and Jacquetta Hawkes's Providence Island (1959); not very many have harboured Dystopias. Islands also feature extensively in Satire, notably those displayed in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735). Although rarely fantastic, the islands featured in Robinsonades are also of some significance in the history of Proto SF. Islands are the natural refuge of weird lifeforms in many early fantasies of Evolution, including William Hope Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night" (November 1907 Blue Book), and likewise of surviving species thought to be extinct, as in H G Wells's "Æpyornis Island" (27 December 1894 Pall Mall Budget). For much longer they remained the traditional Lost-World homes of Lost Races. An island was the natural "laboratory" for the daring scientific experimentation carried out in H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), the prototypic island-sf story and the significant inspiration of such later works as S Fowler Wright's The Island of Captain Sparrow (1928), the 1940 title story of Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (trans 1964), and – of course – Brian W Aldiss's Moreau's Other Island (1980; vt An Island Called Moreau). A very different experiment – an attempt to produce super-Intelligence (by somewhat fraudulent means) in a child cut off from the world – is carried out on M P Shiel's The Isle of Lies (1909).
An artificial island is featured in Jules Verne's L'île à hélice (1895; trans as The Floating Island 1896). Later examples appear as the headquarters of a would-be totalitarian oligarchy in Philip E High's These Savage Futurians (1967 dos); as a recreation of the titular painting by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) on a Terraformed world in Roger Zelazny's Isle of the Dead (1969); as a stateless enclave and refuge in Greg Egan's Distress (1995); and as a Post-Holocaust refuge or Keep in Appleseed (2004).
Early pulp sf made considerable use of islands in its Thought Experiments. Notable weird lifeforms are featured in "Fungus Isle" (27 October 1923 Argosy All-Story Weekly) by Philip M Fisher Jr and in "Nightmare Island" (June 1941 Unknown) by Theodore Sturgeon as E Waldo Hunter. Even more exotic fauna appear in Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Land that Time Forgot (stories September-November 1918 Blue Book; fixup 1924), Stanley G Weinbaum's "Proteus Island" (August 1936 Astounding) and Edmond Hamilton's "The Isle of Changing Life" (June 1940 Thrilling Wonder). A late fantasy spoof of such stories is an episode of Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent (1998), whose bizarrely inhabited island setting proves to be the laboratory of the god of Evolution.
However, the scope for the deployment of undiscovered islands in fiction shrank dramatically during the early part of the twentieth century, and although such defiant-minded authors as Lance Sieveking, in The Ultimate Island (1925), would not be put off, most writers transferred their more extravagant thought-experiments to remoter locations. Apparently innocuous islands continued to be used, however, as bases for the hatching of nefarious schemes in many contemporary and Near-Future thrillers or Technothrillers, ranging from Edmund Snell's Kontrol (1928) via T H White's The Master (1957) – based on Rockall – to Ian Fleming's Dr No (1962) and assorted Fleming pastiches such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #8: The Monster Wheel Affair (1967) by David McDaniel. The island stronghold of the arch-Villain is likewise a beloved Cliché of Comics, knowingly deployed in Watchmen, The Incredibles (2004), and Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible (2007) with its chapter title "Welcome to My Island". Occasionally the good guys may operate from an island base, one notable example being Tracy Island, home and multiple launch-pad of International Rescue in Thunderbirds (1965-1966). Islands also remained popular for such social experiments as those carried out in Aldous Huxley's Island (1962) and Scott Michel's Journey to Limbo (1963). Extraterrestrial islands play a significant role in many sf stories about watery worlds, notably the floating islands of Venus in C S Lewis's Perelandra (1943; vt Voyage to Venus 1953) and the complex "island" constructs thrown up by the sentient ocean in Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook).
The symbolic significance of the word "island" has maintained its prominence in stories which treat artificial satellites, Space Habitats, Space Stations, Asteroids, planets or even galaxies as islands in the void, and it continues to supply neat titular metaphors to such novels as John W Campbell Jr's Islands of Space (Spring 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1957), Raymond F Jones's This Island Earth (stories June 1949-February 1950 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1952), filmed as This Island Earth (1954), Arthur C Clarke's Islands in the Sky (1952), Marta Randall's Islands (1976) and Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net (1988). A series of particularly ingenious metaphorical changes have been rung by Gene Wolfe in "The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories" (in Orbit 7, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight), which has been assembled with "The Death of Dr. Island" (in Universe 3, anth 1973, ed Terry Carr), "The Doctor of Death Island" (in Immortal, anth 1978, ed Jack Dann) and "Death of the Island Doctor" in The Wolfe Archipelago (coll 1983). Exotic Robinsonades continue to be written, often ironically; examples include "The Terminal Beach" (March 1964 New Worlds) and Concrete Island (1974), both by J G Ballard.
Because islands supply a strictly delimited space, rather like a stage set, in which a plot may develop, they are ideal for certain kinds of narrative exercise. Even if it were not for their specific "laboratory function", therefore, they would have a significant continuing role to play in sf. Works illustrative of this role include Hal Clement's Needle (May-June 1949 Astounding; exp 1950; vt From Outer Space 1957), whose island forms the setting for a hunt-the-hidden-symbiote mystery; Hilbert Schenck's A Rose for Armageddon (1982); and Chronosequence (1988) and Garry Kilworth's Cloudrock (1988), in which an atoll is left high and dry after the surrounding ocean has vanished. The Galapágos islands, which played a crucial role in guiding Darwin to the theory of evolution by natural selection, are afforded a key symbolic role in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's bitter futuristic fantasy Galápagos (1985).
Film treatments of the island theme range from the effective Island of Lost Souls (1932), based on The Island of Dr Moreau, to exploitative nonsense like Island of Terror (1966; vt Night of the Silicates). Two sf films and a television series adapt Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island (1883) from sailing ships to Spaceships: Treasure Planet (1982; 2002) and Treasure Island in Outer Space (1987; vt Space Island). A more notable television series with an island setting, using and perhaps over-using all the possibilities for weirdness and surrealism in this isolated sociological pressure-vessel, is Lost (2004-2010). [BS/DP/DRL]
- Martin Green. The Robinson Crusoe Story (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Matthias Egeler. Islands in the West: Classical Myth and the Medieval Norse and Irish Geographical Imagination (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Matt Brown and Rhys B Davies. Atlas of Imagined Places from Lilliput to Gotham City (London: Batsford, 2021) [nonfiction: alphabetical survey including many islands: illus/hb/]
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