Desert-island books: Science fiction tales set in isolation that feel just right now

Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar

THE WASHINGTON POST – Islands have cast a spell on writers’ imaginations since the earliest days.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, they hold magic and monsters, from the deadly cyclops to the sirens who nearly lure the sailors to their deaths. Desert islands inspired Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of Robinson Crusoe.

And if RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island imagined stranded children living idyllically in 1857, along came William Golding a century later with the terrifying Lord of the Flies to show the children’s descent into cruelty and war.

For generations of science fiction writers, space became the new ocean, and planets the lonely islands lost in the great dark. Robert A Heinlein’s 1950 novel Farmer in the Sky became Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian – both dealing with competent men doing competent things in alien worlds. Others focus on the horror and mystery of islands, such as the world described in Cordwainer Smith’s classic A Planet Named Shayol, in which convicts are exposed to a virus that makes them grow extra organs, which are then harvested.

As we’re all being placed into lockdown around the world, life really does feel like being stranded on a desert island. So what books would you take with you to a desert island? And what can they tell us about the way we have to live now?

Lavie: I actually did live on a desert island once (Vanua Lava!) and what I ended up taking with me were a Hemingway omnibus and two tattered issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine – the only things I could find! So the answer is never as glamorous as you’d like to think.

One classic fantasy series about islands, though, is obviously Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, which is marvelous and does a good job of capturing the isolated nature of island living (and turning into a hawk). And Christopher Priest’s The Islanders is easily one of his best novels, a sort of guidebook to his imagined Dream Archipelago.

Silvia: One of the most affecting stories I’ve read set on a deserted planet is We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ. It turns the survivalist Lost in Space ideas right on their head. While the stranded men are eager to colonize the planet, the protagonist is not buying into the whole interstellar Adam and Eve.

It’s grim and powerful. JG Ballard wrote a couple of novels that strike a not-so-dissimilar chord: Concrete Island and High Rise. In “High Rise,” a high-tech building becomes an island of steel and glass. Something, we don’t know what, begins to drive its inhabitants into conflict and eventually murder. In Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami, a group of teens who must fight to the death do so on an island. Are there any science fiction “island” books that are a bit more cheerful?

Lavie: The Island of Dr. Moreau? Just kidding. Though one noteworthy follow-up to the HG Wells classic is the Athena Club series by Theodora Goss, beginning with The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, which imagines Moreau’s daughter teaming up with Mary Jekyll and Justine Frankenstein. Great fun, if not exactly island related. In space, of course, we get islands of a different sort: noteworthy is Aliette de Bodard’s On A Red Station, Drifting, which is set on an isolated space station in a time of war as it is flooding with refugees.

The culture is Vietnamese, the literary influence is the Chinese classic A Dream Of Red Mansions, and the whole thing is very ambitious.

Silvia: I suppose the beginning of The Stars my Destination, by Alfred Bester might also count as a deserted island, since the protagonist is marooned on a spaceship and then goes on to Count of Monte Cristo his revenge.

It still packs an amazing punch.

To veer off into a completely different note, The Invention of Morel by Argentine author Adolfo Casares tells the story of a fugitive who escapes to a deserted island only to discover it’s not so deserted after all as he begins to glimpse strangers walking around, including a young woman who entrances him.

But who are these people? And why are there two moons in the sky? Octavio Paz said it was the perfect novel, but it’s not that well-known among English-language readers. As for the scariest deserted island story I’ve ever read, the honour goes to The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson was clear about islands: Stay home and far away from them.