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Entry updated 16 December 2023. Tagged: Theme.


A Zoo is an enclosure whose inmates are not allowed to leave and who may be observed at will. With the possible exceptions of the ghetto, the quarantine and the Prison, the Zoo thus defined can be distinguished from other enclosed venues, real or imagined: from the wildlife preserve, the Keep, the Island, the circus, the reservation, the Garden City, the Utopia or Dystopia, the twenty-first century cruise ship whose passengers may become citizens and never dock (see Ship of Fools; Transportation) [for the fantasy equivalent, Polder, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Other characteristics of the typical Zoo, though normally encountered, are optional: that its inmates may be experimented upon; that they may be displayed to the public; that they may be induced to breed (see Eugenics; Genetic Engineering; Uplift); that they may be of a different species (or class or race or sex) than their captors; that they may be segregated from other species held within the same general enclosure; that they almost certainly may not leave the Zoo alive, unless they are intended for combat in an arena (see Crime and Punishment; Games and Sports). Variously emphasized, some exploitation of these various characteristics shapes the literal Zoo in non-fantastic literature, with metaphorical implications tending to emerge from that literal depiction: a movement from the Zoo to the zoo-like. Only occasionally – as in David Mitchell's Equipoisal The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – is the model reversed. On the other hand, the movement of story in sf texts is frequently the reverse of the "normal", for sf protagonists readily discover (see Conceptual Breakthrough; Paranoia; Perception) that they are inmates within a venue they are restricted to, and that they are under observation: a movement from zoo-like to Zoo whose definitive explorer is perhaps Philip K Dick.

With the theoretical exception of the Ark that Noah built, pre-urban societies lacked the wherewithal to imprison and maintain exotic species, nor did they boast wealth-assembling rulers capable of funding exorbitantly expensive enterprises of display. Zoos did not exist, therefore, before the first city and its tyrant came together, though they began to appear soon after; the earliest Zoo in Ancient Egypt dates to 3500 BCE, and earlier examples may be uncovered. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century in Europe, most Zoos or menageries were private, but then began to proliferate, new establishments often being under the control of zoological societies or other centres of learning. Zoos soon became a focus for studies in Biology (see also Anthropology), as well as a venue well constituted to expose late nineteenth-century disquietude about the growing understanding that Homo sapiens was kin to all the "animals" (see Apes as Human; Evolution; Origin of Man). Serious works reflecting this perturbation can be found through the literature of the time (see below for some authors given entries in this encyclopedia). But more telling than many serious works may be a set of seemingly facetious "essays" published in the Strand during 1892-1894 by Arthur Morrison (1862-1945), with at least 1,000 line drawings by James Affleck Shepherd (1867-1946) which run a gamut between the anatomical and the Beast Fable [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; the accumulative effect of this exercise, assembled as Zig-Zags at the Zoo (coll 1894), is of an intermittently intense, unresolved dis-ease expressive of the fin-de-siècle zeitgeist. After this, the slightly later teasing of the subject in a book like G E Farrow's The Escape of the Mullingong: A Zoological Nightmare (1907) seems relatively tame. But Farrow and his like were fatally belated: the crux or debate was given a dark and existentially threatening turn (see Eugenics; Imperialism) with the construction just before World War One of an African village within the walls of a zoo, the Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg (see Race in SF), and zoos have latterly served (or "repurposed") as refuges for species threatened by what has more recently been termed the Sixth Extinction (see Ecology).

The use of the Zoo as a metaphor for disenablement has become common during the last decades, as Paranoia intensified about the course of history, and imprisoning Dystopias became an sf Cliché (see also Feminism).

As implied above, some tales of sf interest do begin explicitly in Zoos – examples include David Garnett's A Man in the Zoo (1924), Richard Parker's Escape from the Zoo (1945 chap), Brigid Brophy's Hackenfeller's Ape (1953), Angus Wilson's The Old Men at the Zoo (1961), Scott Bradfield's Animal Planet (1995) and William Mayne's The Animal Garden (2003) – and exfoliate broader implications from straightforward beginnings. A rather larger number begin in Zoo-like establishments where their protagonists are the subjects of research (see Mad Scientist), also a fruitful base from which to construct patterns of moral consequence. A small sample of the latter category would include H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), Thomas M Disch's Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968), William Kotzwinkle's Doctor Rat (1976), the stories assembled in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (coll 1980) by Gene Wolfe, Pat Murphy's "Rachel in Love" (April 1987 Asimov's), Dickinson's Eva (1989) and Peter Høeg's The Woman and the Ape (1996), which is partly set in what may be the most popular venue for this type of story, the London Zoo. The Apes as Human tale, a category that incorporates the titles by Murphy and Høeg just cited, tends to be set in venues described in terms that vacillate between one or another, between Zoo and laboratory; once again, this category of tale normally allows for the drawing of far-flung conclusions.

Many sf stories, on the other hand, take for granted the description and metaphysic of the Zoo as such, and build from there, an early example being Edgar Rice Burroughs's Synthetic Men of Mars (7 January-11 February 1939 Argosy; 1940), where a zoo containing Alien species has been assembled for the delectation of the rulers. Later examples include A Bertram Chandler's "The Cage" (June 1957 F&SF), where humans stripped of their technology are caged by aliens but fortuitously show they are not dumb animals by in turn caging the local equivalent of a mouse; Avram Davidson's bitter "Now Let Us Sleep" (April 1957 Venture); Poul Anderson's "Hiding Place" (March 1961 Analog), in which Aliens conceal themselves from intruders among specimens on their own zoo ship; an episode in James H Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon story "Undercurrents" (May-June 1964 Analog) featuring a semi-intelligent Alien inmate wielding dangerous Psi Power; Damon Knight's Mind Switch (1965; vt The Other Foot 1966), which involves Identity Exchange between Alien inmate and human observer; John Brunner's The Long Result (1965), in which representatives of various species voluntarily go on interstellar tour as zoo exhibits – similarly, a volunteer zoo in J P Martin's Uncle Cleans Up (1965) has a long waiting list of talking animals who enjoy the catering; Monica Hughes's Space Trap (1983), whose kidnapped protagonist finds herself on exhibition in an alien zoo; and Lauren Beukes's Zoo City (2010), in which a "Zoo Plague" has created a condition known as Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism, a process that – by bonding "criminals" and misfits to animals who shamingly express their inner nature – turns the victims effectively into exhibits; and others.

Potentially of greater interest, though not necessarily better in the event, is the sf story that focuses on the realization that Zoo-like worlds or Islands may be Zoos in all but name. Tales of this type are frequently encountered in sf Cinema, beginning with King Kong (1933) and Island of Lost Souls (1932) and continuing with films as various as Planet of the Apes (1968), from Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes (1963), one of whose ironies is that intelligent apes naturally place their human specimen in a zoo; La Jetée (1963; vt The Jetty; vt The Pier) and its quasi-remake Twelve Monkeys (1995); Logan's Run (1976), from William F Nolan's Logan's Run (1967); Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), from Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969); The Serpent's Egg (1977); Pleasantville (1998); The Truman Show (1998); The Matrix (1999); and many more, especially in recent years. Similarly structured Television series include The Prisoner (1967-1968), Lost (2004-2010) and The Leftovers (2014-2017).

Tales and novels that build to an awareness that the world is a Zoo are also increasingly common, and examples can be found under various headings. They include many stories that involve Uplift (see also Adam and Eve); Shaggy God Stories whose Zoo setting is a god's laboratory, as in Eric Frank Russell's "Hobbyist" (September 1947 Astounding) and one episode of Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent (1998); role-reversal tales in which collectors of animal specimens are themselves collected as exhibits, as in Robert Silverberg's "Catch 'Em All Alive!" (December 1956 Super-Science Fiction; vt "Collecting Team" [June] 1957 Authentic #81); stories set in Pocket Universes or Generation Starships; Sleeper Awakes tales; tales set in Godgame venues, like most of the work of Jack L Chalker; tales set in Virtual Reality; tales of Exogamy; tales invoking the Singularity. It is increasingly common, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, to encounter sf tales of justified Paranoia, tales in which enclosure and exposure are seen as one operation. In Isaac Asimov's "Breeds There a Man ...?" (June 1951 Astounding) and "Jokester" (December 1956 Infinity), Earth is revealed to be not so much a Zoo as a Petri dish. We are not allowed to leave this planet, whose owners are watching us. [JC]

further reading

  • Arthur Morrison. Zig-Zags at the Zoo (London: George Newnes, 1894) [coll: first appeared July 1892-August 1894 Strand: illus/hb/James Affleck Shepherd]
  • George Price. The People Zoo (New York: Windmill Books, 1971) [graph: words by "Stephen Josephs": illus/hb/George Price]


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