Robinsonade

Tagged: Theme

Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) provides the name and is the central model for the robinsonade, which may be defined as the romance of solitary survival in such inimical (though ultimately compliant) terrains as desert Islands (or planets), seen as a success-story. Earlier tales do exist (in The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction [1941], Philip Babcock Gove calls them "prerobinsonades"), but Defoe's novel clearly supplies much of the thematic and symbolic buttressing that allows so many of these stories to be understood as allegories of mankind's search for the meaning of life, just as Crusoe's ordeal is both a religious punishment for disobedience and a triumphant justification of entrepreneurial individualism. The primacy of Robinson Crusoe is attested by the antiquity of the term, which first apparently appears in print in Die Insel Felsenburg ["The Island of Felsenburg"] (1731) by J G Schnabel (1692-1750). Crusoe's paternalistic relation to the natives he eventually encounters has likewise been echoed in much modern sf, where until very recently human/Alien relations tended to be depicted within the same code of mercantilist opportunism (see Imperialism).

A second important model for sf's numerous robinsonades may well be Johann Wyss's Der Schweizerische Robinson (1812-1813; trans – perhaps by William Godwin [1756-1836; see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] – as The Family Robinson Crusoe 1814 UK; new trans as The Swiss Family Robinson 1818 UK) – itself imitated by tales like D W Belisle's The American Family Robinson (1853) – in which the element of the triumphant ordeal is broadened to include the testing of a full microcosm of social life – leading either to Utopian speculations, to which the robinsonade has always been structurally attuned, or to the simpler, more active adventure of the Colonization of Other Worlds. However, the fundamental thrust of the robinsonade – its convincing celebration of the power of pragmatic Reason, and its depiction of the triumph, alone, over great odds, of the entrepreneur who commands that rational Faculty – continued to drive most of its offspring, including several tales by Jules Verne, until well into the twentieth century, when a novel like William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) immeasurably darkens the implications of the form; and Michel Tournier's Friday; Or, the Other Island (1967) can end with Robinson's refusal to return to a corrupt world.

Genre SF robinsonades naturally tend to be set on uninhabited planets or satellites rather than islands. The Moon is the location of Ralph Morris's Proto SF The Life and Wonderful Adventures of John Daniel (1751), and of John W Campbell Jr's paean to human inventiveness, The Moon is Hell (1950), the latter nodding to realism despite its technological extravagances by splitting the lone hero into a team. Venus is the setting for Philip Latham's example Five Against Venus (1952). Mars is also a popular venue, as witness Rex Gordon's No Man Friday (1956; vt First on Mars 1957), the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Andy Weir's The Martian (2014), filmed as The Martian (2015). Stories which end in explicit defeat, however, like Charles Logan's Shipwreck (1975), cannot properly be described as robinsonades. [JC/DRL]

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