Brave New Words:
Writing the Unknown

From Mary Shelley’s visionary, apocalyptic future in The Last Man, to Philip K. Dick’s surreal and thought-provoking Ubik, Science Fiction librarian and Into the Unknown advisor, Andy Sawyer, uncovers how writers from the 19th century to today have been inspired by what we do not yet know or understand.

It’s easy to think of ‘science fiction’as something easily defined. In fact, it’s a process in which we go into the unknown in order to reflect back upon our present, and it operates in complicated ways.

Our present changes over time and within cultures. When Mary Shelley in The Last Man (1826) drew upon earlier French examples of imagining the future as different (balloons, for example, as a new mode of transportation), she was writing within a Romantic tradition of deep anxiety about personal and cultural survival.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

The plague which leaves Lionel Verney as the ‘Last Man’ suggests that continuation and stability are not to be relied on. Shelley’s early 19th century world has indeed vanished. But we live in a world formed by it. Should we look at our current technologies and political systems and wonder if anything might survive in a century or so?

Let’s follow Shelley’s example and highlight a few books written since her time that highlight what she taught us.

'The day passed thus; each moment contained eternity; although when hour after hour had gone by, I wondered at the quick flight of time.

Yet even now I had not drunk the bitter potion ot the dregs; I was not yet persuaded of my loss; I did not yet feel in every pulsation, in my every nerve, in my every thought, that I remained alone of my race,
-- that I was the LAST MAN.'

Extract from Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826)


One of the roots of science fiction literature comes from speculation about parts of the world that, for those who were mapping it, remained hazy - the ‘extraordinary voyages’ of Sindbad, Odysseus, and beyond. In his own Voyages Extraordinaires, Jules Verne took travellers to subterranean worlds, uncharted depths of ocean, around the moon and, in Hector Servadac (1877) even off on a comet. But while Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) was extrapolative, Verne’s assumption that ballooning is an everyday mode of transport was barely an advance over Shelley’s 37 years earlier. Verne’s genius was to encourage his readers to know and understand the world – experiencing wonders that exist segueing into wonders that might exist: a technique easily adapted when focus shifts beyond our Earth.

Earlier writers used these unknown geographies for satire. Lucian of Samosata in the second century AD sent his travellers to the Moon in a whirlwind.

Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) had already located her satire on another world, but Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) confined himself to unexplored islands of the world we know.

First edition of Gulliver's Travels

First edition of Gulliver's Travels

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), the ‘lost valley’ setting favoured by adventure-romance writers like H. Rider Haggard is a social laboratory. The three men who enter this woman-only civilisation offer three different but distinctively male versions of encountering utopia and understanding feminism.

A superficially far less ‘extraordinary’ voyage is given to us by Rudyard Kipling. The short story ‘With the Night Mail’, collected in Actions and Reactions (1909), is simply a journalist’s everyday account of the transatlantic mail-run.

‘The turbines whistle reflectively. From the low-arched expansion-tank son either side the valves descend pillar wise to the turbine-chests, and thence the obedient gas whirls through the spirals of blades with a force that would whip the teeth out of a power-saw...'

But, though originally published (in 1905) for an audience only a few years ahead of von Zeppelin’s first successful dirigible flight, and well before the first heavier-than-air flight that lasted an hour, it is written as if from a century ahead and provides a curiously dislocating view of both present and future. This is a world in which commerce and communications are dependent on air traffic and the nation-state has been replaced by an international ‘Aerial Board of Control’. There is even a background of advertisements, letters to the editor, book reviews and other material designed to give the illusion that this really is a slice of life from the year 2000.

'Behind, is its own pressure held in leash or spurred on by the lift-shunts; before it, the vacuum where Fleury's Ray dances in violet-green bands and whirled turbillons of flame...'

It is far from our own 21st century. The airships and Victorian manners produce a curiously steampunkish alternative-history air. Kipling assumes that the airship will outclass the aeroplane and that the achievement of flight will dissolve the nation-state and prevent war. But he also knows that whatever we think technology might do, we can only guess. Kipling perfected that great staple of science-fiction imagination: the unintended consequence.

'The jointed U-tubes of the vacuum-chamber are pressure-tempered colloid(no glass would endure the strain for an instant) and a junior engineer with tinted spectacles watches the Ray intently. It is the very heart of the machine— a mystery to this day. ‘

We read the story with irony, now. Sadly, the history of the twentieth century turned out otherwise. ‘I wonder if any of us ever know what we’re really doing,’ reflects our journalist.


Later ‘space odysseys’ outside our Earth were part propaganda for the real thing, part continuations of the satirical tradition, part cloak for ideological conflict. Arthur C. Clarke’s Prelude to Space (1951) is in some ways a manifesto for the case for space he, and the British Interplanetary Society, had been presenting since before the war. Historian Dirk Alexson is chosen to investigate the biggest event in human history as it happens and becomes more and more convinced by the camaraderie between technicians and scientists and their aspiration for a future which unites humanity. Interplanetary’s team are, in Alexson’s words, ‘visionaries who also happen to be scientists’, embarking upon a moon landing as the first step of a long voyage of understanding the universe.

Courtesy of The British Interplanetary Society 

Courtesy of The British Interplanetary Society 

Being visionary is not always being optimistic. Can humanity understand its place in the universe before the inevitable ‘eternal night’ overtakes us? Clarke’s nostalgic utopianism – his spaceship eventually takes off to the comforting chimes of Big Ben – isn’t geared to give a simple answer to that question. But it recognises it as important.

An ideological – equally utopian – counter-attack comes from Ivan Yefremov in Andromeda, still in serialisation when Sputnik 1 launched in 1957. The first few pages, set on board the spaceship Tantra, set us up for some sort of problem/rescue mission. But we quickly find that this Marxist future looks to the unreconstructed past which is our age; the bad old days before the victory of communism.

On earth, polar ice caps have been melted to increase habitable areas. Skilled workers are slotted into the most appropriate jobs. In space, Humanity has contacted the 'Great Circle' (Galactic Federation). Yet there is still danger – at one point the spaceship Tantra hurtles towards an ‘iron star’ (a kind of black hole), escaping at the cost of burning too much fuel and adding 30 years to their journey. People are still afflicted with love problems and rivalries at work. The Marxist striving for a better world and thirst for knowledge and wonder, ‘the tirelessly unwinding spiral of human urge forward into the future’, is what made Yefremov popular with the authorities, but a later novel questioned utopia too closely and was quickly withdrawn.

'The commander's hands flashed over the levers and knobs with the rapidity of a pianist's. The sharply defined features of his pale face were as immobile as those of a statue and his lofty brow, inclined stubbornly over the control desk, seemed to be challenging the elemental forces that menaced that tiny world of living beings who had dared penetrate into the forbidden depths of space...'

Extract from Ivan Yefremov's Andromeda

Naomi Mitchison was a political activist, feminist, and writer in a wide range of fields. Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) is a classic treatment of the idea of the ‘alien’. Communications expert Mary describes some of her encounters exploring the galaxy: aliens whose starfish-shape creates communication problems for ‘binary’ life-forms like ourselves, carnivorous centipedes preying upon ever-so-cute ‘Rounds’. There are fascinating asides which suggest a rather dark utopia, such as an almost throwaway mention of ‘513’, “one of the group that had discarded names – and indeed a great deal else.” A central concern is how the ‘time blackout’ process creates difficulties when parents return to earth to find their children grown. This often makes it hard to display affection to one’s offspring.

The parent/child relationship is now more strictly controlled. ‘So we are not tempted to fall in love with our sons,’ Mary notes, adding wistfully, ‘But of course there are also one’s friends’ sons.’ Throughout there’s a tension between the directive of non-interference and the actual emotional, even erotic relationships which Mary and some of her colleagues slip into. If that makes Memoirs of a Spacewoman sound like Star Trek, firstly, it predates it and secondly, it is considerably funnier and a lot wiser.

Brave New Worlds

While Yefremov finds wonder and Mitchison sly amusement in humanity’s reaction to the alien, both authors also explore the ‘brave new worlds’ of future possibility.

'You don't seriously suggest they're talking when they make that rattling noise...?'

In John Wyndham’s bestseller The Day of the Triffids (1951) the future arrives with a vengeance. By allowing not one but two catastrophes – the ‘meteor shower’ which results in mass blindness and the escape of carnivorous plants bred behind guarded fences for their oil – to interact, Wyndham racks up the tension.

'The way I came to miss the end of the world, well, the world I had known for 30 years, was sheer accident...Chance played it not only that I should be in hospital at that particular time but that my eyes should be wreathed in bandages. And that's why I have to be grateful to whoever orders these chances...'

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

The triffids are not a threat until the blindness takes place – and isn’t the loss of sight an illustration of our metaphorical ‘blindness’ to the consequences of our technologies? Once read as illustrating our fears of satellite weapons, Triffids is now often read as demonstrating how genetic engineering can go wrong. It also warns us that out of social collapse new and dangerous tendencies can arise.

'It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that 'it can't happen here' - that one's own time and place is beyond cataclysm.

And now, it was happening here...'

Extract from John Wyndham's 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951)

A more modern and unsettling future is that of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2009), an Egyptian novel translated into English in 2011. The narrator is a young man from an affluent, protected community separated by walls and guards from the everyday life of the impoverished, exploited Others. The novel is an attack on the privileged (especially the young for whom sex and drugs are temporary escape).

Listen to an extract from Ahmed Khaled Towfik's 'Utopia'

Towfik cites Orwell and Wells and extrapolates conditions already recognisable in his country, exaggerating them in the same way Orwell exaggerated the possibilities inherent in post-War Britain. The narrator and his female companion Germinal sneak out of Utopia to hunt down and kill – simply for kicks – anyone of the Others they can find. They are discovered and are rescued by Gaber, as bored and disaffected (and as highly intelligent) in his own way as is our narrator.

Through their encounter, we learn much about a future in which there seems no real positive pole. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, our narrator attracts because of his articulacy and the detailed picture he gives of dystopia, and repels because he is so much a part of it.

'There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening...'

Anthony Burgess, 'A Clockwork Orange'


And then there are the ‘Final Frontiers’ – not those of space but of our own perceptions. The troubled genius Philip K. Dick wrote several of the defining classics of science fiction.

Ubik (1969) begins like a parody of bad science fiction, piling up astonishing asides to make us wonder just what is happening (‘I must consult my dead wife’, says one character), and ends by questioning the nature of reality itself.

Listen to an extract from Philip K. Dick's 'Ubik'

The surreal comedy of Joe Chip’s arguments with his fridge and other household objects refusing to operate without payment, contrasts with the increasingly disturbing ‘Ubik’ – reality-changing gimmick aerosol, or deity? Who is alive in the novel, who is dead? Is Ubik a theological parable, a postmodern fetish, or both at the same time?

‘One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically priced Ubik banishes compulsive obsessive fears that the entire world isturning into clotted milk, worn-out tape recorders and obsolete iron-cage elevators, plus other, further, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay’

Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing once said that The Marriages Between ZonesThree, Four and Five (1980) was one of the books she was most satisfied with. The second of her ‘space fiction’series Canopus in Argos, the novel takes place in a world neither our Earth nor a planet in our actual physical universe, but instead in one of a number of metaphysical ‘Zones’ of geographically and symbolically ‘higher’ regions. The novel counters the cosmic bleakness of the previous volume, Shikasta with a more fabulist approach to gender politics. An unknown malaise affects both ‘Zone Three’ (relaxed and pastoral: feminine) and ‘Zone Four’ (harsh and militaristic: masculine). Perhaps the marriage of their rulers will change things. Sudden shifts of event reflect folk-tale, while we come to read the Zonesless as straightforward political or gender distinctions and more as states of mind. Zone Four is possessive, marked by a rigid self-boundedness; Zone Three tends to despise the ‘lower’ Zone Four but is too complacent to look towards the higher mountains of Zone Two.

'We Chroniclers do well to be afraid when we approach those parts of our histories (our natures) that deal with evil, the depraved, the benighted. Describing, we become.

We even - and I've seen it and have shuddered - summon. The most innovent of poets can write of ugliness and forces he has done no more than speculate about - and bring them into his life.

I tell you, I've seen it, watched it...'

Extract from Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980)

It is possible to ask whether Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary (1991) actually is science fiction. (Fowler won one of the major awards of the field for a story –‘What I Didn’t See’ – in which the science fiction elements exist in the story’s gaps,in the way it speaks to a range of other stories and films that we know are science fiction.)

In the American West in the 1870s, a Chinese railway worker discovers a mysterious woman who could be a ghost, a madwoman, a murderer fleeing justice, autistic, a feral human brought up by animals – or even an alien.

Whether we are told the solution depends on what we bring to the novel – and whether we know that Fowler is writing science fiction.

'My intention was that the book would read like a science fiction novel to a science fiction reader, and that it would read like a mainstream novel to a mainstream reader, which is the point, that you bring your own perceptions to everything in a very compelling sort of way.'

Karen Joy Fowler on 'Sarah Canary'
'Chin came out from behind his tree. The woman stood before him, spine straight as a hanged man's face transfigured, tongue fluttering in a strange, noisy speech of clicks and bangs. 'Go away', Chin told her. 'Go home.' He said it in English. He said it in German, 'Gehen Sie nach Hause!' He said it with his hands and facial expressions. She fixed her eyes upon him. Were the pupils curiously flat? Or was that just a drugged dilation? She answered him with a steady and joyful stream of nonsense'

Extract from Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary (1991)

Perhaps we are back to the days before the label ‘science fiction’ was coined to denote a genre?

Mary Shelley’s readers wouldn’t have known to call her works science fiction. Now it is the water in which so many era-defining writers swim.

One thing we know about science fiction, is that, in the future, its writers will be exploring new unknowns.


Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826)
Jules Verne, Hector Sevadac (1877)
Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863)
Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World (1666)
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)
Rudyard Kipling, With the Night Mail (part of Actions and Reactions, 1909)
Arthur C Clarke, Prelude to Space (1951)
Ivan Yefremov, Andromeda (1957)
Naomi Mitchison, Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962)
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951)
Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Utopia (2009)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962)
Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969)
Doris Lessing, Canopus in Argos - The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five / Shikasta
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary (1991)

About Andy Sawyer
Andy Sawyer is a librarian, critic, editor and an active contributor to the scholarship of Science Fiction. He works in Special Collections and Archives at the University of Liverpool Library, running the Science Fiction Foundation’s Library. He also directed a Science Fiction Studies Master’s programme for the University’s Department of English.

About Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction
A genre-defining exhibition of art, design, film and literature. From the 19th century cabinet of curiosities, to the vastness of space through future cities, into the inner landscapes of human perception.

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction took place at the Barbican from 3 June–1 September 2017

Curated by Barbican International Enterprises with co-production partners, Brandts –Museum of Art & Visual Culture, Denmark, and Onassis Cultural Centre - Athens, Greece. It will be staged at both venues before embarking on an international tour. Photography by Dan Tobin Smith, design by Praline