In a 1991 episode of Cheers, psychiatrist Frasier Crane tries to drum up interest in the works of Charles Dickens among his fellow bar-denizens. Specifically, he tries to read them A Tale of Two Cities. Initially, no one cares, but after Frasier adds in some ass-kicking and contemporary violence, Norm, Cliff and everyone else end up chanting “Dickens! Dickens! Dickens!” as though he is the greatest writer since Sly Stallone.
Interestingly, the enduring power of Dickens can not only be found in his original work (Re-read A Christmas Carol now! It’s better than you think!) but also in the ways he influenced storytelling forever. Today, on his 200th birthday, let’s take a look at five ways in which Charles Dickens was integral to science fiction and fantasy.
1.) Dickens Helped Invent Time Travel
A Christmas Carol was published 52 years before H.G Wells’s Time Machine, and yet employs the idea of moving through the past, present and future in a way that is emulated by all the western literature to follow. Sure, religious texts and myths have earlier examples of time travel, but with A Christmas Carol, the time travel of Scrooge throughout his own life creates a positive paradox. Because the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge the future, Scrooge changes the present. And yet, that future couldn’t have existed if Scrooge changed in the present. So how did Scrooge see this future? Well, it was one possible future, which is a notion presented to science fiction characters ever since. Would Q have taunted Picard or Billy Pilgrim skipped through time if it weren’t for Dickens? Doubtful.
2.) Dickens Helped Make Ghosts Viable Characters in Serious Literature
Again, leaning on A Christmas Carol here, Dickens goes to great pains to make sure the reader understands that the ghosts of this story are indeed and in fact real. He even evokes Hamlet in order to do it. The notion that one needs to first understand a character (like Marley) is truly dead before understanding he can haunt someone might seem a bit pedestrian to us now. But this was a good for fantastical, or phantasmagorical writing because it meant the ghosts weren’t only metaphors. True, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Marley only appears to Scrooge, but it doesn’t make the haunting any less real. Yes, it’s possible one could interpret the whole episode of A Christmas Carol as occurring to Scrooge inside his head in the form of a dream, but where’s the fun in that? In any case, seeing as A Christmas Carol is one of the most popular works of fiction ever, it certainly helped bring ghosts into the mainstream.
3.) Dickens Is Integral to The Wrath of Khan
Though Shakespeare is the ultimate proof of someone being “educated” on Star Trek, Dickens gets his fair share of mentions from the mouths of 23rd and 24th century people. In what is maybe the most literary Trek film; The Wrath of Khan, our heroes seem to quote primarily from Dickens, while Khan relies upon Melville. Could director/writer Nicholas Meyer have secretly wanted to pit Dickens against Melville? Maybe. The subtext of The Wrath of Khan relies upon a revolution being perpetrated on behalf of a beaten-down working class (Khan and his followers) against a larger establishment of Kirk and Starfleet. The “two cities” in this story could be seen as Ceti Alpha V and the Enterprise. The twist here is Kirk is reading A Tale of Two Cities, an almost historical cautionary tale about revolution while Khan is (unwittingly?) quoting Melville, a tragedy of how revenge consumes someone. So neither Kirk, nor Khan, really “got” the books they were into. Weird right? Maybe they needed Frasier to explain the books to them.
4.) Dickens Gave Us the Character and Story of Oliver Twist
The notion of a protagonist who is orphaned at a young age, and then has to fight their way up from meager beginnings certainly wasn’t invented in Oliver Twist but it was nearly perfected by that novel. Oliver, a poor boy working in the worst possible factory conditions, asks for more gruel because he’s pretty damn hungry. This sets off a shitstorm, which in a sense, results in the adventure of Oliver’s life. Between falling in with criminals, uncovering a mystery, and discovering long-lost relatives, the events of Oliver Twist unfold in an awesomely unpredictable way.
This format has been emulated in a large number of origin stories of various science fiction and fantasy protagonists. Both Luke and Anakin Skywalker are seemingly orphans or become orphaned. The story of both Skywalkers includes the revelation of hidden relatives. For proof of other orphan Oliver Twist-like stories in science fiction or fantasy see: Superman, Frodo, Harry Potter, Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne... and the list goes on. (Of these, Frodo is maybe the most like Oliver Twist insofar as Gollum can almost be seen as an analog of the Artful Dodger. Sure, the plots aren’t identical, but I’d be shocked if Tolkien wasn’t the least bit into Oliver Twist.)
Perhaps the most obvious Oliver Twist SFF mash-up comes in the form of A.I: Artificial Intelligence, which in turn parallels a kind of Pinocchio
story, which also has roots in Oliver Twist. Though derided, A.I. is actually a great realization of an Oliver Twist character; so much so that I feel like Dickens himself would have been blown away. If you can see it as an Oliver Twist homage, you might be able to appreciate A.I. as a literary mash-up, and get over the fact that the movie is too damn long.
5.) Dickens Shows Up As a Fictional Character in a Lot of SFF
The most recent and fun appearance of Charles Dickens as himself in a science fiction context are his two turns on contemporary Doctor Who. The first time in the 2005 episode “The Unquiet Dead” and most recently in the 2011 season finale “The Wedding of River Song.” The former was more of an actual Dickens story, complete with aliens who at first seemed to be ghosts appearing around Christmas. In the context of “The Wedding of River Song” it was nice to think about Dickens existing in a contemporary world, writing holiday TV specials for everyone.
Dickens is also central to a great Bradbury story “The Exiles” in which various famous authors are still alive on Mars, having been driven from Earth because people stopped believing in them. Dickens is hanging out with his bros Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and Algernon Blackwood in this one, a tale that seems to take place in a kind of fictional universe similar to that of Fahrenheit 451 since it sounds like the people are burning books back on Earth. Dickens also appears in the novel Drood by Dan Simmons and as a ghost in the Larry Niven story “Bridging the Galaxies.” He might not be the author who has appeared the most in science fiction (that would be Shakespeare) but he certainly makes a good run for it.
Happy 200th birthday, Charles Dickens! In honor of his contributions, I’d like everyone to mention their favorite Dickens novel, moment, or SFF crossover. And if you can’t think of anything like that, just chant “Dickens! Dickens! Dickens!” in the comments below.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com and can be kind of a Dickens sometimes.