Not-So-Splendid Isolation: Five SF Works About Being Alone

I myself have no problem with lengthy periods of enforced isolation. There are so many things to do: alphabetizing the house spiders, teaching cats to dance, talking with my knives… Still, not everyone deals with isolation well. If that’s you, you might derive some consolation from reading (or watching, or listening to) stories of folks who are even worse off than you are.


So Said the Lighthouse Keeper” by John Woloschuk

This song is a stark contrast to the title of the 1977 Klaatu concept album Hope on which it appeared. The eponymous lighthouse keeper not only provides the perspective from which the grim tale is told, it is the only perspective from which the story could be told, since the lightkeeper’s species managed to annihilate not only themselves, but their world as well. How the keeper survived is not clear—songs short enough to fit onto an album generally can’t fit in a lot of backstory—but survive it did. Now it can look forward to a long solitary life staffing a beacon warning travellers of the orbital debris that remains of the keeper’s world.

[I understand that there is a version of this song in which personified Death assures the keeper there was a point to it all, but that is not the version I had.]



ORA:CLE by Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. (1984)

Faced with soaring carbon dioxide levels, the Coalition provided its citizens with an ongoing lockdown aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions. A lucky few may be important enough to travel. Ale and his wife Emdy are not among the lucky. They can expect to enjoy sequestration in their cozy apartment for the rest of their lives.

On the plus side, those lives may not be terribly long. The technologically superior alien Dax use Earth as its hunting preserve, which the Coalition is too weak to prevent. If being hunted by bored aliens was not enough, Ale narrowly escapes a series of unlikely mishaps. A cynic might wonder if someone in a position of power has decided Ale Knows Too Much. But what on Earth could an academic specializing in the work of an obscure Chinese poet know?



The Quiet Earth directed by Geoff Murphy, screenplay by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, & Sam Pillsbury (1985)

Project Flashlight has decisively ended the Cold War. No more will the Free World need to worry about Soviet aggression! Project Flashlight also made almost every living animal on the planet vanish, with very few exceptions. You can’t break eggs without making an omelet! Project scientist Zac Hobson is one of those exceptions. He wakes to find himself seemingly the only human remaining in New Zealand and perhaps, the only one in all the world.

How does he deal with his newfound peace and quiet, not to mention the freedom to do as he likes without any risk of social disapproval? Not well.



Mare Internum by Der-shing Helmer (webcomic, 2015 – 2019)

As the story opens, Dr. Mike Fisher has comprehensively sabotaged his career on Mars. As soon as the next transport leaves, he will leave with it. Before that can happen, however, Fisher reluctantly accompanies newcomer Rebekah Egunsola to his field site beneath the Martian surface. When the ceiling caves in, the suicidally depressed Fisher embraces it as an escape. Instead, Fisher is deposited in a previously undiscovered relic ocean hidden deep underground.

Egunsola is nowhere in sight. Instead, the injured Fisher is marooned in an ancient refugia of the once-thriving Martian ecosystem. He is alone amidst disorienting eerie strangeness, at least for the moment. Ample time to really come to grips with the self-destructive self-loathing that had him on the brink of suicide when the webcomic began.



But isolation does not have to be bad! Take, for example:

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (1996)

Sims Bancorp Colony #3245.12 fails. This means temporary disruption for its workers, who will be shipped off to another world. For aged Ofelia, economic calamity is opportunity. Even if she survives the trip to another planet, all that waits there is further years spent as a contract labourer under terms that guarantee lifelong servitude. Why not simply remain behind, and by so doing escape nagging relatives and exploitative corporations? Ofelia is old and may not have many years remaining to her. She can at least spend them as she pleases.

Pity about the aliens…



I’ve done enough of these to know that for every example I think of, you can suggest dozens. I am outnumbered! Comments are, as ever, below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.



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