Five SFF Tales of Survival in a Strange Place (or Time)

Travellers to foreign lands often reject opportunities to enjoy the unfamiliar, preferring to sequester themselves in comfortable enclaves that are just like home, enclaves from which they can make forays to carefully curated sights and experiences that won’t be too strange. This kind of tourism is perhaps the most common kind.

I’m sure you could find many SFF novels about such fuddy-duddy tourism turning strange. There are also novels that up the stakes by marooning the protagonist far from home. This will certainly give the protagonist a way to display do-or-die determination by denying them any choice in the matter…

Consider these five works about castaways.


Welcome to Mars by James Blish (1966)

Having invented anti-gravity, Dolph Haertel does what any plucky teenager in his place might do. He secretly equips himself for a foray into space! Having constructed an interplanetary vessel under the pretense that he is building a tree-house, he embarks alone for the Red Planet. Reaching Mars is easy enough. The return voyage, however…

Dolph discovers he made a terrible error when he failed to pack a spare 6BQ5 power tube. On Earth, a blown tube merely means a quick trip to the nearest electronics shop. On Mars, the nearest electronics shop is on inaccessible Earth. With his only 6BQ5 power tube shot, return to Earth is impossible. Dolph must find some way to survive indefinitely on the Red Planet; if he can’t, he faces a lingering, ignominious death. But a far worse fate awaits: rescue at the hands of a girl—the astonishingly bright Nanette Ford.



The Luck of Brin’s Five by Cherry Wilder (1977)

Travel on Torin is a simple matter of hopping into a convenient space-plane and jetting to some other location on the Earth-like world that orbits 70 Ophuichi. Or it would be, if Scott Gale had not just crashed his expedition’s only space-plane on the far side of Torin, near the Terran expeditionary base’s antipodes. Oops.

Torin’s native population is unaware that they have off-world visitors until Scott’s space-plane falls from the sky. To the family of weavers known as Brin’s Five, Scott could become their new Luck (an integral member of each Moruian family’s five-member structure). His arrival may save the weavers from misfortune and starvation.

To Great Elder Tiath Avran Pentroy, also known as Tiath Gargan (or Strangler), technologically superior aliens are an unwanted disruptive element. Best to quietly dispatch Scott before Strangler has to deal with the ramifications of alien contact. And if Brin’s Five are not public-minded enough to surrender their Luck? Why, they can be dispatched as well.



The Peace War by Vernor Vinge (1984)

Allison Parker and her companions were dispatched on a secret orbital reconnaissance mission, but they never even reach low Earth orbit. Their shuttle is among the first targets of the Peace War. As far as the survivors on Earth can tell, the unfortunate astronauts expired within the impenetrable force field—the bobble—that suddenly appeared around their shuttle.

Well, bobbles aren’t only force fields. They are spheres of frozen time. Once sufficient time has passed, bobbles vanish, freeing their contents. This can present problems for the Peace Authority: What to do with the bobble containing a hydrogen bomb caught in the instant of detonation? Alison’s bobble is a problem of a different sort: it contains living relics of the world before the Peace Authority settled its boot comfortably on humanity’s collective neck.

The Tinkers have been quietly working towards revolution. Allison, trapped in a future from which she can never return [1], could be an invaluable asset in the struggle to free Earth from the Peace Authority.



Nation by Terry Pratchett (2007)

A volcanic eruption sends massive tsunamis sweeping across the ocean, depositing the Sweet Judy on a nearby island. Young Daphne and a foul-mouthed parrot emerge from the wreckage. They are the sole survivors. Daphne has no choice but to find some way to survive in her new home.

Daphne is not quite alone. Young Mau survived because a rite of passage put him at sea when the deadly wave erased every other person in his island nation. He is the sole survivor of his island community. Together, Daphne and Mau may be able to prevail and build a new world…but only if they can overcome cultural barriers and the crushing grief of having lost their families and their worlds.



Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (2011)

The Miss Dream Teen contest considers only one quality of relevance in deciding the winner: appearance. No talent contests for this competition. Possessing other abilities or qualities may be nice, but they are irrelevant. Except when the plane carrying the thirteen contestants crashes onto a seemingly deserted island. Beauty won’t feed the girls. Lucky that they turn out to have an abundance of useful skills and talents.

The island on which the young women are marooned is volcanic. As is so often true in fictional narratives (The Mysterious Island, You Only Live Twice) the volcano has proved an attractive nuisance. The very same corporation that administers the Miss Dream Teen contest has chosen this island to house their secret lair. The corporation would prefer that the world at large not learn about the lair. Or its troubling contents.

Therefore, the teen survivors must die. It seems an achievable goal. After all, how much trouble could thirteen highly motivated teens cause?



The concept of castaways being a popular story hook, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of other examples I could have used. Perhaps you are astounded, even outraged that I overlooked your favourites. The comments are, as ever, below.



1: Aren’t we all?


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 the Aurora finalist 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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