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Entry updated 22 January 2024. Tagged: Theme.

Scenarios of future Crime and Punishment frequently include prison facilities, ranging from mild extrapolation of present-day institutions to highly exotic variants from which escape is theoretically impossible but nevertheless often takes place. Influential nonfantastic precursors of sf prisons, featuring just such more or less remarkable breakouts, include the real-world, Island-based Château d'If of Alexandre Dumas's Le Comte de Monte-Christo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans as The Count of Monte Cristo 1846 3vols); the sealed valley imprisoning the protagonist of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759); the eerie, gunboat-guarded Village of the Dead in Rudyard Kipling's "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" (Christmas 1885 Quartette); and the contemporary US penitentiary of Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" (30 October-5 November 1905 Boston American as "The Mystery of Cell 13"; vt in The Thinking Machine coll 1907). Franz Kafka's The Penal Colony (1919 chap; trans 1933) is also relevant despite placing its emphasis upon Torture (using a bizarre Machine) and failed redemption rather than imprisonment as such. Italo Calvino's "Il conte di Montecristo" (in Ti con zero, coll of linked stories 1967; trans as t zero 1969; vt Time and the Hunter 1970) is a metafictional exploration (somewhat in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges) of physical and philosophical escape routes from Dumas's Château d'If. Fictional prisons, more often in Fantasy than sf, may echo the oppressive architecture of the Carceri d'Invenzione ["Imaginary Prisons"] (1749) depicted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (whom see).

The prison world or planetary prison colony is an established sf Cliché, in its latter form often being proposed as a necessary adjunct to Colonization of Other Worlds. A "Titan Penal Colony" (see Outer Planets) briefly features in George O Smith's Venus Equilateral tale "The Firing Line" (December 1944 Astounding; vt "Firing Line" in Venus Equilateral coll of linked stories 1947). Further examples of note are Eric Frank Russell's The Space Willies (June 1956 Astounding as "Plus X"; exp 1958 dos; rev vt Next of Kin 1959), in which, characteristically, the Earthman protagonist outwits an entire planet of Alien gaolers by sheer yarn-spinning; Robert Sheckley's The Status Civilization (August-September 1960 Amazing as "Omega"; 1960), which with cheery Satire explores the topsy-turvy ethos of a colony world run by the most villainously successful criminals to be exiled there; the back-story of the Superman comics saga in which Superman's home world of Krypton exiled its criminals into a prison Dimension known as the Phantom Zone, introduced in Action Comics #283 (April 1981); Cordwainer Smith's consciously hellish "A Planet Named Shayol" (October 1961 Galaxy) – Shayol or Sheol being an Arab name for hell – in which criminals are made to grow, painfully, extra limbs and organs for harvesting and use in transplants (see Organlegging); James White's Open Prison (February-April 1964 New Worlds; 1965; vt The Escape Orbit 1965 dos), where dumped prisoners of war hatch an elaborate plan to seize the guarding Spaceship; Lloyd Biggle Jr's "Pariah Planet" (March 1965 Worlds of Tomorrow; vt "The Perfect Punishment" in The Rule of the Door coll 1967), where prisoners are required to re-enact their crimes until wearied into reform; D G Compton's Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1966), with its unsparing depiction of a harsh prison colony on Mars; Robert A Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966), showing the revolutionary transition of a Moon prison colony (many of whose inhabitants are descendants of transportees and notionally free) to independence; John Boyd's The Last Starship From Earth (1968), whose prison-world Hell proves less hellish than advertised; and in film, Alien³ (1992). Escape from the Force-Field enclosure of the planetary prison in Lois McMaster Bujold's "The Borders of Infinity" (in Free Lancers, anth 1987, ed Elizabeth Mitchell) requires external military intervention; but characteristically for Bujold, the real challenge for her series hero Miles Vorkosigan is prior infiltration to organize the brutalized and violent inmates into disciplined escape teams.

Of sf's exotic and specialist places of confinement, perhaps the best known is the Gouffre Martel cave prison in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996) – Underground and perpetually dark (in this deliberately echoing the Château d'If dungeon) to prevent inmates from getting their bearings for Teleportation. Arthur C Clarke's Against the Fall of Night (November 1948 Startling; 1953) imprisons the inimical disembodied AI known as the Mad Mind in a "strange artificial star called the Black Sun", later interpreted as a Black Hole; Superman proposes similar incarceration for an equally indestructible foe in Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything" (1985 Superman Annual #11). In Frederik Pohl's and Jack Williamson's The Reefs of Space (July-November 1963 If; 1964), convicts are again used as a source of body parts; the hero's initial escape attempt, concealing himself among dead inmates scheduled for disposal, is foiled by guards' infra-red scanners. Jack Vance describes an inverted "open prison" in The Star King (December 1963-February 1964 Galaxy; 1964; vt Star King 1966) – with wrongdoers ejected from a safe City enclave, free though unwilling to escape into the deadly jungle around – and develops a variation of this theme at greater length in Cadwal II: Ecce and Old Earth (1991). The titular underground prison/mine of Piers Anthony's Chthon (1967) is gruelling, disease- and Monster-infested and possessed of its own Gaia-like intelligence. Robert Silverberg's Hawksbill Station (August 1967 Galaxy; exp 1968; vt The Anvil of Time 1969) uses supposedly one-way-only Time Travel to exile offenders into the deep past of the Cambrian era. Philip José Farmer's A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981) has a containment facility comprising a suite of luxurious rooms accessible, linked by and escapable only via Matter Transmission. The protagonist of F M Busby's Cage a Man (September 1973 F&SF; exp 1974) contrives to think himself out of an impervious alien cell by seeming to become – through sheer belief and willpower – dead matter which is automatically ejected.

Three very different prisons appear in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols): the Matachin Tower, a long-grounded Spaceship where Torture is administered by a dedicated guild (there is a brief homage to Kafka); the Anteroom of the autarchal House Absolute, where the polite fiction that this is a mere waiting-room is maintained by feeding its generations of detainees on coffee and spiced cakes only; and the Vincula or House of Chains, a converted mine whose description is accompanied by some thoughtful musings on a prison's ideal location. The Dystopian society of Iain M Banks's The Player of Games (1988) deposits miscreants in the Labyrinth Prison at a position determined by the nature of the offence: it is theoretically possible to solve the maze and walk free within days, though "the rich just bribe their way out". Adam Roberts offers a supposedly escape-proof prison located within a Star in Stone (2002); his Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story (2012) begins with convicts marooned on a barren Asteroid where they must work desperately to make the place habitable (to the ultimate profit of the prison franchise owners). Terry Pratchett's Discworld City of Ankh-Morpork has its own prison, the Tanty: in Going Postal (2004) its inmates are allowed the distraction of hope, with walls partly penetrable by scraping with a teaspoon, waste outlets that look as though they must lead to the sewers ... Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (2010) opens with its titular protagonist trapped in the Virtual-Reality Dilemma Prison, required to play endless games of the "Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma" Thought Experiment against Avatar copies of himself.

Further varyingly futuristic prisons and forms of escape may be found in Hinko Gottlieb's The Key to the Great Gate (trans 1947), Tom Godwin's The Survivors (1958; vt Space Prison 1960), Curt Siodmak's City in the Sky (1974), Harry Harrison's A Stainless Steel Rat is Born (1985) – in which series hero Jim diGriz, at the beginning of his scofflaw career, arranges his own incarceration in hope of learning from criminal mentors – Patricia McKillip's Fool's Run (1987), Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen (graph 1987), William C Dietz's Prison Planet (1989), Margaret Weis's and Don Perrin's Hung Out (1998), George Zebrowski's Brute Orbits (1998) – where prison Asteroids are transformed into World Ships – Monica Hughes's The Other Place (1999), Phil Palmer's Artemis (2011) and Joe Schreiber's Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown (2014), the last opening in an ultra-violent Space-Station penitentiary. There are many more.

Media treatments of interest include Television's The Prisoner (1967-1968) and Superjail (2007-2014), and several films: Escape from New York (1981), in which New York itself has become a hellish penal colony; Fortress (1993); Cube (1997), where Mathematical skills are required to thread the shifting labyrinth-prison and there are deadly penalties for error; No Escape (1994); Dante 01 (2008); and Lockout (2012), whose similarities to Escape from New York led to successful legal action. Though not sf unless its miraculous healings are regarded in terms of Psi Powers, Stephen King's The Green Mile (1996 6vols) has a memorable Death Row prison setting; it was filmed as The Green Mile (2000). The action of High Life (2018) takes place a board a relativistic Spaceship prison.

Fortified Cities, Keeps and Pocket Universes may also be prisons of a kind, though rarely in a context of Crime and Punishment. For the favourite sf theme of escape from metaphorical prisons of the mind, see Conceptual Breakthrough. [DRL]

see also: Bioforge; Blake's 7; City of Heroes; Mysterious Island (1961); Zoo.


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