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Entry updated 25 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.


As the City at the heart of the British Empire (see Imperialism), London was long seen by UK speculative authors as bearing the brunt of whatever Disaster the future might bring. There are many proleptic post-imperial visions of London destroyed or depopulated, as in William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City; Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942 (1880 chap), and other works discussed under Ruins and Futurity, this being perhaps the first tale to conflate the growing health crises caused by London fog with a first-person narrative of the destruction of the colossal city, which – as in this case – is sometimes viewed through the memorializing gaze of an archetypal New Zealander or similar visitor from afar. George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945) goes beyond mere ruination: in the enlightened England of 3000 CE, a would-be pilgrim is disappointed to learn that nothing at all of London remains. The apparently more glorious stature of future London at the opening of Robert W Cole's The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 (1900) proves to be a façade for interplanetary Dystopia:

It was early in the morning of the 10th of June, in the year 2236. The sun rose in unrivalled splendour over the immense city of London, the superb capital, not only of England, but of the world, the Solar System, and the stars.

London comes under attack and/or is occupied in innumerable Future-War and Invasion scenarios. Some examples are: E Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist, or The Doom of the Great City (June-September 1893 The English Illustrated Magazine; 1893); Jingo Jones's The Sack of London by the Highland Host: A Romance of the Period (1900); Henry Curties's When England Slept (1909), in which German occupiers are eventually ousted; Saki's When William Came: A Story of London under the Hohenzollerns (1913), a relatively rare portrayal of the city in the context of World War One, here only imminent; Stella Benson's Equipoisal fantasy Living Alone (1919), featuring witch-zeppelin combat (but only published after its end); Emerson C Hambrook's The Red To-Morrow (1920); Cicely Hamilton's Theodore Savage: A Story of the Past or the Future (1922; rev vt Lest Ye Die: A Story from the Past or of the Future 1928); Hugh Addison's The Battle of London (1923); Roy Connolly's and Frank McIlraith's Invasion from the Air: A Prophetic Novel (1934) ... and many further works in which Hitler Wins. A nuclear attack on the city is observed during a pause in futureward Time Travel in The Time Machine (1960). Terrorism rather than outright war causes damage or devastation to London in Coulson Kernahan's Captain Shannon (1896), J S Fletcher's The Three Days' Terror (1901) and Fred Hoyle's The Westminster Disaster (1978).

Alternatively, the city may be afflicted by natural Disaster, like William Delisle Hay's poison fog in the above-cited The Doom of the Great City; the earthquake of Robert Buchanan's poem The Earthquake: Or Six days and a Sabbath (1885); a whole spectrum of unpleasantness in Fred M White's Doom of London stories (January 1903-October 1904 Pearson's Magazine); another earthquake in W Holt-White's The Earthquake: A Romance of London in 1907 (1906); the Pandemic in Penelope Gilliatt's One by One (1965); the flood of Richard Doyle's Deluge (1976); and flood again in the second play of Steve Waters's The Contingency Plan: On the Beach & Resilience (coll of linked plays 2009).

More exotic threats to London include H G Wells's Martian tripods and Heat Rays in The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898), the most famous of all; Vampires from space in Alan Hyder's Vampires Overhead (1935); the epidemic of blindness (worldwide but shown primarily through its effect on London) that gives the shambling vegetable Triffids an advantage over most of humanity in John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952); rapidly and explosively spawning alien puffballs in the Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future story "Operation Moss" (in Eagle Annual Number 8, graph anth 1959); the titular Dinosaur of Gorgo (1961) and gigantic ape of Konga (1961); Daleks – who would later return – in the Doctor Who storyline The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964); the hugely enlarged white kitten which destroys the Post Office Tower (now Telecom Tower) and St Paul's Cathedral amid other havoc in a Monster Movie spoof episode of the BBC comedy series The Goodies, titled "Kitten Kong" (12 November 1971); a Zombie plague as a side-effect of psychic vampire invasion in Lifeforce (1985); Monsters from a literal mirror world in China Miéville's The Tain (2002 chap); and dragons (see Supernatural Creatures) in Reign of Fire (2002).

Post-Holocaust, post-Disaster and Ruined-Earth (which see) portrayals of a devastated London include: Richard Jefferies's After London; Or, Wild England (1885); H G Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which gleefully describes the devastated city and its reconstruction, along lines prophetic of the attempts by Modernist architects after World War Two to rebuild working class areas through schemes that focused on improved sanitation, physical and cultural: the resulting Dystopian tower blocks (now mostly demolished) fed sf writers for decades with imageries of London as a great Disaster area; Gerald Kersh's "Voices in the Dust of Annan" (13 September 1947 Saturday Evening Post as "Voices in the Dust"; vt in Sad Road to the Sea, coll 1947); Lord Dunsany's The Pleasures of a Futuroscope (written 1955; 2003); H C Asterley's Escape to Berkshire (1961); J G Ballard's The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962), generating a potent yet languid strangeness by submerging the grey city in tropical waters; Arthur Sellings's Junk Day (1970); H R F Keating's A Long Walk to Wimbledon (1978); and Garry Kilworth's Abandonati (1988).

Inevitably, a number of Dystopias are set in variously horrid future or Near-Future Londons. Some examples from before World War Two devastation transformed the reconstruction of London into a subject fit for Futures Studies include Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926) and Barbara Wootton's London's Burning: A Novel for the Decline and Fall of the Liberal Age (1936). By 1944, urban planners were seeing the ruins of London as an opportunity (see Ruins and Futurity) to build literally upon the ruins of the past, as promulgated in works like Sir Patrick Abercrombie's Greater London Plan 1944 (1945); but few if any sf writers swallowed the bait. A far more typical rendering of the fate of the city is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which is set primarily in London, capital of Airstrip One. Other dystopian visions include Sid Chaplin's Sam in the Morning (1965), Gill Edmonds's The Common (1984), Graham Marks's Omega Place (2007) and Jonathan Trigell's Genus (2011).

London is echoed in imaginary Cities portrayed by several UK authors, rather as the fanciful metropoli of Italo Calvino's Le cittá invisibili (1972; trans as Invisible Cities 1974) are all in some way aspects of Venice. Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, as developed in later volumes of his Discworld sequence, reeks of Victorian London – almost literally so in The Truth (2000), with its refuse baron who knows there is "nothing, however gross, that you can't sell to the tanners", and other suggestions of intensive research in London Labour and the London Poor (1851-1861 4vols) by Henry Mayhew (1812-1887); Pratchett's standalone historical comedy Dodger (2012) is actually set in Victorian London and its sewers. A similar flavour of London sleaze pervades China Miéville's New Crobuzon, as first seen in Perdido Street Station (2000), though more melodramatically evident in the Underground London portrayed in King Rat (1998); his later London tales, where sleaze is light-shot, include Un Lun Dun (2007) and Kraken (2010). Even the eternal city Diaspar of Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) conceals, far beneath its futuristic towers, a Transportation system uncannily like the London Underground.

Underground London has a grimy mystique of its own. Many a Doctor Who storyline – most famously perhaps "The Web of Fear" (3-14 February 1968 4 episodes) – sees portions of the Tube network infested with Aliens or Monsters; a Tube train is the setting for monstrous confrontation in Split Second (1991). There are hidden Wainscot Societies and other wonders or horrors down there in such works as Bruce Graeme's Blackshirt the Adventurer (1936), Nigel Kneale's BBC Television serial Quatermass and the Pit (22 December 1958-26 January 1959 6 episodes), novelized as Quatermass and the Pit (1960), Lawrence Leonard's The Horn of Mortal Danger (1980), William Corlett's The Secret Line (1988), Laurence Staig's The Network (1988), Peter Beere's Underworld sequence beginning with Underworld (1992), and such Urban Fantasies [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996; rev 1997) and Ben Aaronovitch's Whispers Under Ground (2012). Gaiman's settings also include the city's vertiginously high places, the home and battlefield of another secret London in Roofworld (1988) by Christopher Fowler.

Although the subgenre of Steampunk (which see) is largely of American origin, London is its natural home and favoured setting. Its precursors include stories set in the variously fantasticated Londons imagined by Charles Dickens (passim), Robert Louis Stevenson in New Arabian Nights (coll 1882), and G K Chesterton in The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908; vt The Annotated Thursday 1999). In another novel with a steampunk flavour, Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2001), London has become a mobile "Traction City" first seen "chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea".

Modern authors deeply involved with London's history and mythology include Peter Ackroyd with Hawksmoor (1985) and The Plato Papers (1999); Michael Moorcock, most evidently in the borderline-fantastic Mother London (1988) and the semi-fantastical The Whispering Swarm (2015); Iain Sinclair with White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Downriver (1991) and Radon Daughters (1994); and Connie Willis, whose Time-Travelling historical researchers endure the Blitz of World War Two in her two-volume story Blackout (2010) and All Clear (2010).

Among the notable fictional inhabitants of London are Sherlock Holmes, his lesser imitators Sexton Blake (see Sexton Blake Library) and Solar Pons (see August Derleth), and, somewhere in the slums of old Limehouse, Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu Manchu. Not fictional, but anonymous and amenable to almost any fantastic interpretation, is the grisly figure of Jack the Ripper.

Anthologies focused on London include Soot and Steel: Dark Tales of London (anth 2019) and London Centric: Tales of Future London (anth 2020), both edited by Ian Whates. [DRL]

see also: The Fugitive Futurist; Fallen London.

further reading


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