Five SFF Stories About Hermits, Recluses, and Loners

I recently reread a classic Canadian thriller and the second thing that struck me about it was the fact that the protagonist’s coping mechanism for escaping disaster—complete isolation—failed so abjectly.

This is far from the only piece of fiction to explore isolation. Consider these five works from the previous millennium.

 

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

Robert Neville may have been the sole human immune to the pandemic that swept the world. At least, as I Am Legend begins, he has never met another human able, as Robert was, to shrug off the disease that burned through the rest of the population. Forced solitude would be bad enough, but Robert would prefer it to his current reality: The victims of the pandemic die only to rise again, as bloodthirsty creatures of the night. If Robert is to survive, he must become a skilled vampire-hunter.

No matter how closely the infected may resemble those creatures of legend, vampires, Robert is convinced vampires are a purely scientific phenomenon. He has spent much time studying them, hoping to discover vampirism’s cause…and perhaps a cure. However, as so often happens in science, he discovers that his initial understanding of the matter was deeply flawed—a revelation that makes Robert’s situation quite untenable.

 

The Last Canadian by William C. Heine (1974)

Scarcely had the ink dried on American-born Gene Arnprior’s Canadian naturalization papers when a novel, extremely contagious, extremely lethal contagion swept North and South America. Initial news reports were sufficient warning for Gene to flee with wife and children to a remote fishing camp. Alas, the camp is insufficiently remote and Gene discovers that while he is immune, his late wife and children weren’t.

The grieving widower abandons the camp and adopts a nomadic life in the ruins of former Canada and the United States. By chance, he crosses paths with Russian scouts eager to put American resources to Soviet use. Eager to silence Gene, the Russians try and fail to murder the last Canadian before succumbing to the disease themselves. This will not be the first time the Russians try to murder Gene. The lesson the Soviets are all too slow to learn is two-fold:

  • Gene’s patience is limited. Attacked one time too many, he sets out to cross the Bering Straits to do to the Russians what they have tried and failed to do to him. True, a lot of innocent people will die if he succeeds but grief-maddened Gene does not care.
  • Gene is surprisingly hard to kill. If even repeated nuclear attacks failed to do the job, what can possibly stop Gene in time?

 

The Only Neat Thing to Do by James Tiptree, Jr. (1985)

Solitude is a price that sixteen-year-old Coatillia “Coati” Canada Cass is more than willing to pay in exchange for a life spent exploring the unknown in the Great North Rift. If a few white lies are required as well, Coati will mouth those as well. Coati is determined to be one of history’s great explorers…which she will be, but not as she imagined.

A clue puts her on the path of missing Supply Ship DRS nine fourteen BK, whose last fragmentary messages hint at a First Contact situation. Coati sets out to find the ship, only to discover for herself why it was that nine fourteen BK never returned to base.

 

The Lady of Shalott by Loreena McKennitt (1991)

Based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same title, this song focuses on the cursed Lady of Shalott. Although the Lady isn’t quite sure what kind of curse has been laid on her, she takes care to prevent it from coming into play. She lives a solitary life on an isolated island some distance from Arthurian Camelot. While the peasants speculate about who she is and why she isolates herself, the Lady of Shalott busily spins and weaves, limiting her perception of the world beyond her windows to indirect glimpses in a mirror. One has to wonder what could possibly go wrong, given the Lady’s prudent measures.

The answer, as anyone familiar with Arthurian tales might guess, is that scoundrel Lancelot, a bold knight who almost never fails to leave the ladies he encounters worse off than before they met him. A glimpse of Lancelot, “Burn’d like one burning flame together” is enough that the Lady forgets herself and takes a direct look, which triggers her fatal curse.

Does lethal hottie Lancelot feel guilty for his part in her doom? He does not! He does, however, take the time to assess his victim’s attractiveness.

But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

Lancelot is just the worst.

 

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (1996)

Sims Bancorp provided Ofelia and her family an amazing opportunity: enrich the company while laboring as peons on Colony 3245.12. The investment didn’t pan out. Sims Bancorp decides to relocate the entire population to some more promising world. The colonists are not consulted.

Ofelia, after having labored as a peon for long years, finally rebels. She evades relocation. She’s not at all sure that she can live on her own, but she plans to enjoy her solitude.

Except Ofelia is not nearly as alone as she thinks she is.

***

 

No doubt you have your own favourite recluses, hermits, and loners, protagonists who are (alas) not mentioned above. There are many such; they are, after all, frequently found in the ever popular post-apocalyptic subgenre. Feel free to mention the ones I missed in the comments, which are, as ever, below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.

Footnotes

citation

Back to the top of the page

40 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.