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Robinsonade (//) is a literary genre that takes its name from the 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The success of this novel spawned so many imitations that its name was used to define a genre, which is sometimes described simply as a "desert island story" or a "castaway narrative".
The word "robinsonade" was coined by the German writer Johann Gottfried Schnabel in the Preface of his 1731 work Die Insel Felsenburg (The Island Stronghold). It is often viewed as a subgenre of survivalist fiction.
In the view of Dublin-born novelist James Joyce, Robinson Crusoe is a symbol of the British Empire: "He is the true prototype of the British colonist…" Later works would, arguably, expand on a mythology of colonialism.
In the archetypical robinsonade, the protagonist is suddenly isolated from the comforts of civilization, usually shipwrecked or marooned on a secluded and uninhabited island. He must improvise the means of his survival from the limited resources at hand.
Some of the common themes include:
- Isolation (e.g. desert island, virgin planet)
- A new beginning for some of the characters
- Self reflection
- Encounters with natives or apparent natives
- Commentary on society
See also themes for subgenres below.
Unlike Thomas More's Utopia and romantic works which depicted nature as idyllic, Crusoe made it unforgiving and sparse. The protagonist survives by his wits and the qualities of his cultural upbringing, which also enable him to prevail in conflicts with fellow castaways or over local peoples he may encounter. However, he manages to wrest survival and even a certain amount of civilisation from the wilderness. Works that followed went both in the more utopian direction (Swiss Family Robinson) and the dystopian direction (Lord of the Flies).
The term inverted Crusoeism is coined by J. G. Ballard. The paradigm of Robinson Crusoe has been a recurring topic in Ballard’s work. Whereas the original Robinson Crusoe became a castaway against his own will, Ballard's protagonists often choose to maroon themselves; hence inverted Crusoeism (e.g., Concrete Island). The concept provides a reason as to why people would deliberately maroon themselves on a remote island; in Ballard’s work, becoming a castaway is as much a healing and empowering process as an entrapping one, enabling people to discover a more meaningful and vital existence.
One of the best known robinsonades is The Swiss Family Robinson (1812–27) by Johann Rudolf Wyss, in which a shipwrecked clergyman, his wife, and his four sons manage not only to survive on their island but also to discover the good life. Jules Verne strands his castaways in Mysterious Island (1874) with only one match, one grain of wheat, a metal dog collar, and two watches.
The robinsonade proper also contains the following themes:
- Progress through technology
- A storyline following the triumphs and the rebuilding of civilisation
- Economic achievement
- Unfriendliness of nature
Science fiction robinsonade
The robinsonade genre also includes many space-travel science fiction works. The basic premise is that our astronauts arrive at new worlds, terraform them if necessary, then live and prosper there, building a civilization where none existed before. The vastness of interstellar space, and the constraints of relativistic physics, may keep them isolated for thousands of years from other human or non-human (possibly robotic) settlements scattered across the galaxy, hidden amongst hundreds of billions of other stars and planets; and in their new life, they may meet aliens, just as Robinson Crusoe met Man Friday.
Genre SF robinsonades naturally tend to be set on uninhabited planets or satellites rather than islands. The Moon is the location of Ralph Morris's proto-SF The Life and Wonderful Adventures of John Daniel (1751), and of John W Campbell Jr's paean to human inventiveness, The Moon is Hell (1950). A classic example of an SF robinsonade which has all the elements of the robinsonade proper is Tom Godwin's The Survivors, as well as J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island. A more recent example is Andy Weir's 2011 The Martian. Joanna Russ' We Who Are About To... (1977) is a radical feminist objection to the entire genre.
Apocalyptic fantasy robinsonade
Sears List of Subject Headings recommends that librarians also catalog apocalyptic fantasies—such as Cormac McCarthy's popular novel The Road, or even Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers—as robinsonades.
As part of the cataclysmic global war depicted in H.G.Wells's The War in the Air, the bridges linking Goat Island in the middle of the Niagara Falls to the mainland are cut, making it as much of a desert island as any in the middle of a faraway ocean. With civilization fast breaking down, a few survivors stranded on the island can't expect rescue and must rely on their own resources - embarking on a grim life and death struggle.
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The Martian is the story of a human astronaut stranded on Mars after a storm forces the rest of the crew to depart and the effort to recover him.
In 1940 Mort Weisinger created Green Arrow, a millionaire castaway turned to vigilante.
Years later, Gold Key Comics, produced a comic series, titled Space Family Robinson, in the early 1960s and later producer Irwin Allen, created his own version of a similar concept, about another Space Family Robinson, known as Lost in Space, for CBS.
The first appearance of a space-faring Robinson family (unrelated to the series' Robinsons) was in a comic book published by Gold Key Comics, The Space Family Robinson, December 1962. Space Family Robinson was published as a total of 59 issues, from 1962 to 1982. The first issue was published in December 1962. With issue #15 (January, 1966), the "Lost in Space" title was added to the cover.
The book Silver Age: The Second Generation of Comic Artists by Daniel Herman explains that when the Lost in Space TV series came out in 1965, it was obvious that it was inspired, at least in part, by the comic book, but CBS, the network airing the show, had never acquired the license from Western Publishing. Rather than sue CBS or Irwin Allen, Western decided to reach a settlement which allowed them to use "Lost in Space" for the title of the comic book. Since CBS and Irwin Allen licensed shows to Western, Western didn't want to antagonize them. Also, the TV show title probably helped sales of the comic book.
The Lost in Space TV series is an adaptation of the novel The Swiss Family Robinson. The astronaut family of Dr. John Robinson, accompanied by an Air Force pilot and a robot, set out from an overpopulated Earth in the spaceship Jupiter 2 to visit a planet circling the star Alpha Centauri with hopes of colonizing it. Their mission in 1997 (the official launch date of the Jupiter 2 was October 16, 1997) is immediately sabotaged by Dr. Zachary Smith, who slips aboard their spaceship and reprograms the robot to destroy the ship and crew.
Smith is trapped aboard, and saves himself by prematurely reviving the crew from suspended animation. They save the ship, but consequent damage leaves them lost in space. Eventually they crash on an alien world, later identified as Priplanis, where they must survive a host of adventures. Smith (whom the show's writer originally intended to kill off) remains through the series as a source of comedic cowardice and villainy, exploiting the forgiving (or forgetful) nature of the Robinsons.
Several videogames have explored this theme, placing players in hostile environments where they must work towards a specific goal or merely survive. As such, robinsonade video games can be included in the broader survival game genre. A few examples of this genre are the games in the Stranded series, Stranded Deep, The Forest and more recently Minecraft.
- Steampunk anthology, 2008, ed. Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, ISBN 978-1-892391-75-9
- Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals, And Fantasies of Conquest, by Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, University of Minnesota P, 2007, ISBN 978-0816648634
- (in German) Die Insel Felsenburg, 1731, Johann Gottfried Schnabel
- James Joyce, "Daniel Defoe", translated from Italian manuscript and edited by Joseph Prescott, Buffalo Studies 1 (1964): 24–25
- Sellars, Simon (2012). "Zones of Transition": Micronationalism in the Work of J.G. Ballard. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 230–248.
- Bicudo de Castro, Vicente; Muskat, Matthias (2020-04-04). "Inverted Crusoeism: Deliberately marooning yourself on an island". Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures. 14 (1). doi:10.21463/shima.14.1.16. ISSN 1834-6057.
- Sears List of Subject Headings, 18th ed., Joseph Miller, ed. (New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 2004)
- For historical examples, see "Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe & the Robinsonades Digital Collection" which has an overview of the genre along with over 200 versions of Robinson Crusoe and historical robinsonades openly and freely online with full text and zoomable page images from the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature
- TV Tropes Robinsonade Page
- For literary criticism on the subject, see "Chapter 7: Unmapping Adventures: Robinsons and Robinsonades" in Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure, by Richard Phillips, published in 1997, and Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals, and Fantasies of Conquest, by Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, University of Minnesota P, 2007, ISBN 978-0816648634.