Entry updated 19 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Underground settings are far from being an exclusively sf theme, having a universal resonance for Homo sapiens, as Kim Stanley Robinson registers in Forty Signs of Rain (2004): "He descended the Metro escalator into the ground. A weird action for a hominid to take.... Following the shaman into the cave. We've never lost any of that". Mysterious regions underground have since the earliest days of Proto SF offered a suitable location for Lost Worlds, Labyrinths and the kind of free-form adventuring which Genre SF transferred to other worlds as Planetary Romance. It might be suggested, however, that not until the late eighteenth century were underground realms imagined – by Early Romantics, more in Germany than elsewhere – as essential elements in the landscapes of what would become Fantastika. The enormously influential polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who began his career as a mining engineer, conveyed to his huge audience from before the turn of the century a geological/geographical vision of the planet as radically one: his early detailed maps of mines dramatize his lifelong practice of mapping mountains etc as though they were inverse mines, and entire countries as though they were mirrored from below [for As Above, So Below see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The allure of the underground arguably grows from – it is certainly contemporary with – this vision of the planet.
Less romantically, underground regions of great Cities are often occupied in sf (both physically and as programmatic markers of Political oppression) by the lower orders of society, as in H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910), or Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Less controversially, closed underground spaces are sometimes significant in terms of Psychology; the agoraphobia of city-dwellers in Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) is first conveyed by the constricted settings preferred for all their Virtual Reality adventures, typically underground.
There is some overlap between underground fictions set in the vast internal spaces of a Hollow Earth (which see) and those which merely feature extensive cave-systems. Two of the most famous stories of the latter type are Lytton's The Coming Race (1871; vt Vril: The Power of the Coming Race 1972) and Jules Verne's Voyage au centre de la terre (1863; exp 1867; trans anon as Journey to the Centre of the Earth 1872). A third example, not often thought of as being such, and especially prone to the psychoanalytic interpretation, is Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Distantly echoing the underground-dwelling Morlocks of H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), H P Lovecraft imagines unpleasant products of Devolution infesting underground warrens in, for example, "The Lurking Fear" (23 January-13 February 1923 Home Brew); further grisly troglodytes feature in John Blackburn's Children of the Night (1966). Much more recently, Jeff Long's The Descent (1999) unashamedly exploits underground caves and their demonic inhabitants to evoke Horror and Paranoia. Nonhuman Monsters are also frequently found below Earth's surface: examples include the "deros" in Richard Shaver's Shaver Mystery stories, fire-emitting beetles in Thomas Page's The Hephaestus Plague (1973), literal though far from unlikeable bogeymen in Raymond Briggs's Fungus the Bogeyman (graph 1977), and fire-breathing dragons in Reign of Fire (2002). The monster-filled Alien cave-system of Piers Anthony's Chthon (1967) is sufficiently complex to have developed its own emergent intelligence, a mini-Gaia.
Metaphor and literal fact reinforce one another when an "underground" movement actually resides beneath the ground, an early example being Milo Hastings's embattled subterranean Berlin in City of Endless Night (June-November 1919 True Story as "Children of 'Kultur'"; rev 1920); or when, at the climax of Metropolis, the buried working class erupts upward into the light. Similarly the underground "sietches" of Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965), built as shelter from the harsh desert, become foci of resistance against human oppressors. Sf Pariah Elites may construct underground City refuges, as in A E van Vogt's Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951), Henry Kuttner's Mutant (stories February 1945-September 1953 Astounding; fixup 1953), and the human hive of Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive (November 1972-March 1973 Galaxy as "Project 40"; 1973). Humanity at large has retreated into such underground cities owing to a decadent turning away from nature in E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 The Oxford and Cambridge Review) and Michael Frayn's A Very Private Life (1968); and owing to pressure of Overpopulation in Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) and T J Bass's Half Past Human (December 1969 Galaxy and November 1970 If; fixup 1971). Sewers, tunnels and other excavated spaces beneath more conventional Cities provide a shadowy, atmospheric otherworld which is both strange and very close at hand, as in Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar (May 1961 Fantastic as "Scylla's Daughter"; exp 1968) and numerous tales of London (which see).
Subterranean locations in sf often contain artefacts of mysterious Forerunners, as in – to select a few of very many examples – Forbidden Planet (1956); Andre Norton's Forerunner series, beginning with Storm Over Warlock (1960); Frederik Pohl's "The Merchants of Venus" (July/August 1972 If); and Piers Anthony's Kirlian Quest (1978), along with other books of his Cluster series. The sub-lunar Ruins of Brian N Ball's Sundog (1965) appear to be such a trove but are in fact fraudulent; the same book exemplifies many hardened military sites with a massively armed, three-miles-deep "Asiatic fort".
During the Cold War era, a favourite form of underground installation was the bomb shelter built in fear of nuclear Holocaust and/or the subsequent radioactive fallout. Some examples are: Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald; The Penultimate Truth (1964) by Philip K Dick; Farnham's Freehold (1964) by Robert A Heinlein; The Prodigal Sun (1964) by Philip E High; and Doomsday Clock (1975) by Elizabeth S Benoist. Megalomaniac plans for deep shelters as a base for repopulating the Earth feature in the climax of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963). The type of Post-Holocaust underground community that might ensue is imagined in A Boy and His Dog (1975). Farther into the future, a post-holocaust shelter setting may become an effective Pocket Universe whose inhabitants have forgotten or deny that an outer world exists, as in Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F Galouye, Kuldesak (1972) by Richard Cowper, and The Shadow of the Gloom-World (1977) by Roger Eldridge. Further underground settings of note include the laboratory complex of The Andromeda Strain (1971), the Command System – a glorified bomb-shelter cum underground railway – of Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas (1987), and the planet Trencher in John Clute's Appleseed (2001), whose vast population lives deep below its war-devastated crust. Such subterranean palaces as the House Absolute in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) and the Labyrinth of Robert Silverberg's Majipoor sequence, opening with Lord Valentine's Castle (November 1979-February 1980 F&SF; 1980) suggest a past need for defensive bunkers. A tiny enclave of humanity in a deep mine survives the millennia of intense meteor bombardment that destroys all life on Earth's surface in Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (2015).
Many sf and sf/Horror films are set underground, such as The Mole People (1956); The Incredible Petrified World (1957), whose cave-system location is entered from deep Under the Sea; Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959); Death Line (1972; vt Raw Meat US); The Last Dinosaur (1977); and Eden Log (2007). Underground scenes depicting the vast and awesome Machines of the bygone alien Krell are a visual highlight of Forbidden Planet (1956). In television, there was The Secret Empire (1979). A twenty-first-century example of blockbuster underground adventure – more Technothriller than sf – is the highly implausible movie The Core (2003). [DRL/EFB]
see also: Keep.
- Guy Costes and Joseph Altairac. Les Terres Creuses: Bibliographie Géo-Antropologique Commentée des Mondes Souterrains Imaginaires et des Récits Spéléologiques Conjecturaux (Paris: Encrage, 2008) [nonfiction: annotated bibliography: illus/various: hb/Jeam Tag]
- David Ashford. London Underground: A Cultural Geography (Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2013) [nonfiction: hb/uncredited]
- Will Hunt. Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath our Feet (London: Simon and Schuster, 2019) [nonfiction: hb/]
previous versions of this entry