Thu
Oct 13 2011 5:10pm

What the Dickens? Famous Authors as Science Fiction Characters

After, aliens, spaceships, time travel, and serious and artful mediations on the human condition, there’s almost nothing science fiction and fantasy enjoys more than a good allusion to literature. Nicholas Meyer brought a bunch of Dickens, Melville, Doyle, and Shakespeare to Star Trek, while more contemporary steampunk science fiction, like Lev Rosen’s All Men of Genius has its roots in Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile, the forthcoming film, The Raven sees Edgar Allan Poe himself as central character in a creepy murder mystery. Arguably the most famous and outlandish science fiction film of all time, Forbidden Planet delivered not only a flying saucer and a talking robot, but derived its storyline from The Tempest. Pretty highbrow stuff for a sometimes “trashy” genre!

Occasionally this literary reference goes an extra step. Sometimes famous authors themselves appear as characters in works of science fiction. Here’s a smattering of some of the instances we discovered.

Before he became John Cusack, Edgar Allan Poe used to live on Mars. In Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man there is a story called “The Exiles” in which the likes of Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, and Charles Dickens are living on Mars because the people of Earth have stopped believing in them. There’s a faint hint that this story takes place in the same universe of Fahrenheit 451 since the mentions of book burnings are numerous. Bradbury also has a story called “G.B.S.-Mark V” where George Bernard Shaw shows up as a robot.

Charles Dickens crops up again in the Dan Simmons novel Drood where a  shadowy figure which gives the book its title messes around with poor Charlie. Though not specifically science fiction, Simmons is known for his SF books like Hyperion that does feature poet John Keats as a character. But if we’re sticking with Dickens, the most recent and very science fiction appearance of him as a character is in Doctor Who. First in the Mark Gatiss penned-episode “The Unquiet Dead” and then more recently (albeit) briefly in “The Wedding of River Song.” The Unquiet Dead” is nice because it give us an explanation for where Dickens got his ideas about ghosts. (Picture of Dickens and the 9th Doctor at the top of the post)

Not all authors in science fiction adventures have to be assisted by science fiction characters, sometimes the authors themselves take center stage. This is true in the book Blake’s Progress by R.F. Nelson where the poet William Blake and his wife Catherine embark on a series of inter-time and cross-dimensional adventures. The short-lived television show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne naturally operated on a similar premise, giving us the exciting steampunky adventures of not only Verne (Chris Demetral) but also the occasional appearance of Alexandre Dumas (John Rhys-Davies)

Similarly, the often-forgotten Nicholas Meyer film Time After Time portrays H.G. Wells (Malcolm MacDowell) as its primary protagonist as he journeys through time and space to a 1970s San Francisco where he is determined to stop Jack the Ripper (David Warner) from ripping up 20th century America. Other than featuring a literary figure as its main character, this science fiction movie is also notable because Mary Steenburgen plays the loves interest of H.G. Wells, making it the first of two occasions in which she plays the girlfriend of a time traveler. (The other being Back to the Future III.) When you think about it, it’s shocking that Steenburgen didn’t have some kind of role in the film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife!

But back to good old H.G. for a moment. Wells also appears in the Colin Baker era DoctorWho episode “Timelash” as well as four episodes of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. And of course Warehouse 13 features a character named Helena G. Wells who is revealed to be the science fiction writer truly responsible for all those famous novels, while her famous brother “Charles” was merely the front.

Of course no literary reference discussion would be complete without an inclusion of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway appears in the form of numerous android duplicates in the short story “Papa’s Planet” by William F. Nolan. This planet is a sort of Hemingway amusement park with various versions of the author manifested in different robot forms. The narrator also loses his love interest to a simulacrum of F. Scott Fitzgerald! Hemingway also is central to the Joe Haldeman novella The Hemingway Hoax in which an academic attempts to create a false “lost” Hemingway manuscript only to be confronted with a sort of multiverse cop which advises him not to create such a piece. This multiverse cop looks just like Hemingway and repeatedly kills the protagonist over and over again, constantly sending him into alternate realities.

Though not totally SF, Hemingway naturally hung out with Indiana Jones in several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. And Hemingway recently made appearance (along with Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others) in the Woody Allen time travel comedy Midnight in Paris.

The mother of perhaps all of science fiction, Mary Shelley makes an appearance as a character in a few science fiction narratives, too. Interestingly enough, Mary Shelley is used as a framing mechanism for the film 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa Lanchester portrayed Mary Shelley in this film, but also interestingly played “the monster’s bride!” Mary Shelley (Tracy Keating) also crosses paths with that sword-swinging immortal Duncan Macleod in the Highlander series episode called “The Modern Prometheus.” This title was of course, a reference to the alternate title of Frankenstein.

When writers show up in fanciful narratives, often the story takes on the form of the kind of story you’d associate with that writer. (As was the case in the Dickens Who episode.) In another Doctor Who episode, the real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie was “explained” by showing that Agatha Christie had her memory erased by aliens. In terms of an author interacting with a science fiction premise in a TV show, this little alien whodunit has to be one of the most entertaining.

“Time’s Arrow,” the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode featuring Mark Twain AND Jack London has pretty much nothing in common with the writings of either author. Though Mark Twain getting taken aboard the Enterprise is pretty sweet. (In retrospect it almost seems like it would have been more fitting if his literary doppelganger Kurt Vonnegut were instead given a tour of the ship.) Jack London is a bellhop in this one, and we don’t even know he’s Jack London until the end.

In terms of the identity of a writer being kept a secret for an entire story, only to be revealed at the end, the Quantum Leap episode “The Boogieman” takes the prize there. In this uber-spooky story, Sam discovers at the end of the episode that he’s been hanging out with none other than Stephen King! The episode also has loads of King references, paradoxically explaining where all of King’s good ideas came from.

The bard himself, William Shakespeare has of course made his mark on science fiction. Again, the good Doctor gave him some writing pointers in Doctor Who’s “The Shakespeare Code.” Shakespeare is also featured in the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Bard.” The Goblin Reservation by Clifford Simak also features William Shakespeare being brought into a future world. However, it seems odd that though Shakespearean references are strewn throughout science fiction that Will himself isn’t more present in as a character in different stories. Perhaps there is a science fiction narrative all about him that I’m unaware of.

What about you well-read readers? What other noted authors have made appearances in science fiction narratives?


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. To date, he has written three science fiction short stories featuring famous authors; “The Hemingway Escape,” “Weeping Woody,” and “The Joyce of Sex” none of which have (yet) been published.

36 comments
marian moore
1. mariesdaughter
Dennis Hopper as private eye, HP Lovecraft in "Witch Hunt"?
David Thomson
2. ZetaStriker
Reading Anno Dracula while taking a British Literature class has been particularly eye opening, considering most big-name writers of the era are name-dropped at one point or another, if their creations aren't. I loved people snarking over Alfred Lord Tennyson effectively becoming England's last, eternal Poet Laureat after being turned into a vampire.

Poor Oscar Wilde though. He seemed not to fair so well.
Jeff R.
3. Jeff R.
If Drood counts, then surely Simmons' The Crook Factory (Hemmingway) does as well. And from those, it's not that far a leap to Matthew Pearl's Poe, Dickens, and Dante-by-way-of-Longfellow books.

James Joyce is a central character in what I consider Robert Anton Wilson's best novel, Masks of the Illuminati.
Jeff R.
5. Dietes
I loved the appearance of H. G. Wells in Michael Moorcocks' "Dancers at the End of Time"
Dave Parker
6. parkdr
Samuel Clemens and Jack London show up in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series.
Paige Morgan
7. paigecm
Byron, Keats, and the Shelleys show up in Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard.
Kristin Franseen
8. musichistorygeek
Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series (the earlier books, especially) are built around issues in literary history.
jon meltzer
9. jmeltzer
Everybody shows up in the Riverworld series.
Ron Hogan
10. RonHogan
Shakespeare AND Marlowe starred in Elizabeth Bear's Ink & Steel and Heaven & Earth a few years back, and Lee Carroll's latest, The Watchtower, has a character from Elizabethan Stratford who's always referred to as "the poet," which got kind of annoying after a while.

Poe shows up in Rudy Rucker's 1980s novel, The Hollow Earth.
Jeff R.
11. Rob T.
Howard Waldrop's fiction includes many historical characters, including writers. Here are a few that I remember:

Isaak Walton & John Bunyan in "God's Hooks!"

Ernest Hemingway in "Fair Game"

Alfred Jarry, Marcel Proust & Emile Zola in "Fin de Cycle"

Bertolt Brecht in "The Effects of Alienation" (well, he's not really in the story but maintains an important offstage presence)

Thomas Wolfe in "You Could Go Home Again"

Charles Dickens in "Household Words; Or, the Powers-That-Be"

Christopher Marlowe in "Heart of Whitenesse" (I was fortunate enough to hear Howard read this one in person)
Iain Cupples
12. NumberNone
Rob T: good call. Walter Jon Williams' Wall, Stone, Craft also comes to mind - Byron and Mary Shelley appear there. Although if we're allowing alt-history, there's going to be a lot of those.
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
Lovecraft, Walter Gibson, Lester Dent, L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein in Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.

Coleridge makes a brief appearance in Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates along with a couple other Lake poets. He also shows up in Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

Shakespeare gets used a lot. There was a Twilight Zone episode where he's brought to the modern era to write radio or TV scripts. And I remember one short story where Shakespeare was getting royally ticked off by all the time travelers showing up at his place.

You could play this game forever.
alex
14. jerec84
If time travel did really exist, I doubt Shakespeare would get any work done. Everyone would keep visiting him.
Jeff R.
15. a-j
Can't remember the title, but there's a Harry Turtledove story about Shakespeare watching a performance of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. It was available on-line on this very site.
Suzanne Johnson
17. Susannah Sandlin
The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne is one of the main characters (along with British naturalist Richard Burton) in Mark Hodders' Burton & Swinburne steampunk series. There are other literary and historical figures in there as well, but it's been a while since I read the last one!
Ashe Armstrong
18. AsheSaoirse
HP Lovecraft as a hardboiled detective in a supernatural world in HBO's 1991 "Cast A Deadly Spell." It's so much fun.

Also, The Sandman, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Rob Munnelly
19. RobMRobM
Agatha Christie in Connie Willis' All Clear.

@9. LOL. I guess I was in that one personally.
Jeff R.
20. Jazzlet
Back in the seventies or early eighties I read a short story in which Shakespeare had travelled to the 'present' and then taken an English literature course, which he failed as his analysis of the Shakespeare works studied was so poor. No idea who wrote it though.
Jeff R.
21. Rob T.
Jazzlet, the story is "The Immortal Bard" by none other than Isaac Asimov. It's a one-joke story, not particularly "Asimovian" (except to the extent that, like much of his best work, it depicts reason in failure mode), but perhaps for those very reasons it's become part of sf folklore.
Jeff R.
22. Ngaire
I've started reading The Map of Time by Felix J Palma which has H G Wells in it showing two other characters how to use his Time Machine. :)
Jeff R.
24. a-j
AsheSaoirse@18 - Also in Neil Gaiman's Sandman are Ben Jonson in 'The Tempest' and Mark Twain in 'Three Septembers and a January'.
Also Arthur Conan Doyle turns up in Kim Newman's short story 'Angel Down, Sussex' and Edgar Allan Poe appears in Route 666 by Jack Yeovil (aka Kim Newman). Back on TV, Robert Louis Stevenson popped up in Steve Moffat's Jekyll, naturally played by Sherlock co-creator Mark Gattiss.
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
Wasn't there a rather poorly done syndicated show about 10 years ago that depicted Jules Verne traveling all over the world having adventures? That probably fits, too.
Ryan Britt
26. ryancbritt
@25 I do believe I mentioned The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne in this very article!

@Everyone- Keep all these coming! I'm so happy there are enough examples to form a sub genre. Quick- someone come up with a name for it. All I've got is "Persona YES Grata"
David Levinson
27. DemetriosX
@26 So you did. That comes from reading the article yesterday and suddenly thinking of something a day later.
Ashe Armstrong
28. AsheSaoirse
Oh, one I just remembered, Monkey Bone. It features Poe and Stephen King for sure, off the top of my head. Probably others as well.
Jeff R.
29. ofostlic
Kit Marlowe is a popular one: in addition to the Elizabeth Bear novel series and some of her unrelated short stories, there's Melissa Scott's "The Armour of Light", and a Connie Willis short story, and I'm sure I've read others that I'm forgetting.
Jeff R.
30. lampwick
@29 -- And Lisa Goldstein's _Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon_, along with other University Wits.
Andrew Mason
31. AnotherAndrew
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell features Lord Byron - with, if I remember rightly, briefer mentions of the Shelleys - and contains a reference to the house-party at which Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre were written.
Jeff R.
32. ZCam
James Owen's Imaginarium Geographica series has too many to list--it's a very nice YA series I've enjoyed a lot despite not being so Y any longer.
S Cooper
33. SPC
Less famous perhaps, but Jerome K. Jerome makes an appearance in To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis).

Larry Niven also used Robert Heinlein in "The Return of Willliam Proxmire"
Jeff R.
35. Basel Gill
King uses himself as a character in the Dark Tower series. Turtledove used Shakespeare as the main character in the novel Ruled Britannia. And a young Asimov shows up in James P. Hogan's The Proteus Operation.
David Levinson
36. DemetriosX
Asimov also appears in his own Murder at the ABA.

I mentioned one of Paul Malmont's books earlier. Actually, it seems most of his books involve a number of authors. His most recent has Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, basically the whole bunch that worked for the navy during the war, and his first book was about Jack London.
Hilary Hertzoff
37. hhertzof
Mary Shelley also appears in Big Finish's Doctor Who audio series as a companion of the Eighth Doctor. So far she has been in Mary's Story (originally one of four short audios released as The Company of Friends) and The Silver Turk (this month's release) and she's in the next two releases in the main range.
Jeff R.
38. wkwillis
Larry Niven had Charles Dickens show up as a ghost in "Bridging the Galaxies". Good story. Can't give you a cite because clipboard doesn't work in this comment.

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