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Concepts from Fiction

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Various fictional characters including fairies, wizards and robots

Every now and again, someone adds a concept to the human meme-pool1. Many of these were first postulated in scientific works, but some spring from works of fiction.

Here we look at what these concepts say about the thoughts of the authors and the times in which they were formulated. If we focus on the 19th and 20th Centuries, we discover several distinct themes. These concern society as a whole, individual human behaviour, and what one might call visions of the future. The concepts these individuals created or named are mostly very bleak, concerning the crushing of the individual, the shadow-side of humanity, and the unreliability of progress2.

The creation of these new words and phrases suggests that traditional myths and fairy tales were no longer sufficient to interpret or explain the human condition. One example that does not fit into the list below is Tolkienesque which is used to describe any world of magical fantasy, drawing upon, in the main, European myths and legends. Tolkien was not the first to create an entire fictional world with his hobbits roaming Middle Earth, but the popularity and influence of The Lord of the Rings does suggest that the time was right for new parables and metaphors.

Politics, Progress and Dystopias

If we look at the political concerns of writers in the 19th and 20th Centuries we find them dealing with tyranny and the mechanised state, and the vulnerability of individuals.


Joseph Heller created an entire novel around the concept of the government making sure that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Catch-22 was the system that kept pilots flying combat missions. The doctor could ground you and send you home if you were crazy, but you had to ask him to do so. If you asked him to stop you flying combat missions, it proved you weren't crazy.

Room 101

George Orwell worked for a while for the BBC, in Room 101. This was the number that he used in his novel 1984 to describe the room where the worst possible thing that could be done to you would be done. This was where Winston Smith's personality was deconstructed. Every individual has their own greatest fear. This fear - whatever it might be - was what was prepared and inflicted on them in Room 101.

Big Brother and Orwellian

Orwell saw an advertisement for a self-improvement course showing the photograph of a rather unpleasant man who offered to 'be your big brother'. The idea of an all-recording, all-knowing state came from the mass-observation research done in Britain in the 1930s. He combined the concepts, with the chilling phrase 'Big Brother is Watching You'. Remember it every time you use a loyalty card in a store, or pass a CCTV (closed-circuit television) camera, or send an email. To paraphrase from another era - 'We have the technology'. Orwell gave his name to Orwellian, denoting a highly organised and brutal totalitarian society, though his writings cover a far wider range than this.


Franz Kafka wrote a large number of short stories about the impotence of individuals swept up into governmental, legal or bureaucratic madness. He also covered fear, paranoia and impotence in many forms, as well as the outsider syndrome. As a result, Kafkaesque has come to mean having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.

Behaviour and Character

A lot of mildly dysfunctional human behaviours can be summarised by one word based on a particular character in fiction.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The classic exposition on the shadow side of human nature is Robert Louis Stevenson's sinister story about the dark side of a man's character. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde preceded the published works of Freud by a decade and those of Jung by a generation.


Less sinister because it holds out the promise of redemption, is the character of Scrooge, who is probably Charles Dickens' most famous creation. He is the miser who hates other people to be happy, exploits his employees, and regards Christmas as humbug. These days, perhaps, he has a point - the commercialisation of Christmas suggests that the pendulum may have swung too far.

Peter Pan and Wendy

JM Barrie gave us a pair of counter-balancing characters. Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up. Some men never leave their mothers, others are stuck in a sartorial time-warp, and others try to hang desperately on to receding youth by dating younger and younger girls. Peter Pan's counterpoint is Wendy, the little girl who grows up all too soon and her name is used most often now in 'Wendy House'. Wendy takes on the role of mothering even smaller children. Although Barrie appears to approve whole-heartedly of her, in real life Wendys are often in perilously difficult situations.

Dorian Grey

Dorian Grey might be considered the dark side of Peter Pan. Oscar Wilde created this character who never seemed to age, despite leading a life of decadence and debauchery. The marks of sin showed up all right, but only on a portrait he kept hidden away in the attic. When Dorian Grey dies, the picture reverts to portray his lost innocence, and his face shows the symptoms of the life he led.


A more explicitly disturbing view of young girls is provided by Nabokov, who gave a name to something which was largely unacknowledged - at least in polite society - before the publication of Lolita. The girl of the title is pre-pubescent at the beginning of the book, and although the narrator makes the point that he is not the first to love her physically, the book caused an outrage when it was eventually published in the US in the 1950s3. There is an ambiguity in the tale: is it the girl who goes out to attract, or is it the man who seeks out young flesh? Who is the innocent? Is he a man who had never thought about this kind of thing before blaming a 'too-knowing' young girl for the chasm he is falling into, more or less willingly? Nabokov himself asserts, in effect, that it is simply a story he had to get off his chest.

Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft

Sherlock Holmes could not really be described as 'dysfunctional' though he is decidedly odd. Conan Doyle's detective with his legendary powers of deduction gives us Holmsian, a word used to describe someone who works with forensic exactitude and reasoning to establish the sequence of events. Conan Doyle also gives us Mycroft who was Sherlock's brother. Mycroft has definite problems in relating to other people in the real world. He was cleverer than Sherlock, but never left the protection of the oak-panelled rooms of his gentlemen's club. Mycroft is therefore a hidden authority. Robert Robinson refers to his question-setter as 'Mycroft' in the radio quiz Brain of Britain.


The shining opposite of all these characters is Pollyanna - the little girl who always looked on the bright side of life. Eleanor Porter wrote the novel about the determinedly optimistic child who always found good in any situation in 1913. Of course, there are those who would say that this behaviour is as dysfunctional as any of the others mentioned here.

Science and Visions of the Future

Our visions of the future, and our understanding of the present, have been shaped by speculative fiction. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) chose the name Enterprise for one of the space shuttles as a tribute to Star Trek.


In 1816 Lord Byron, John Polidori, the poet Shelley and Shelley's 19-year-old wife Mary whiled away a stormy and tempestuous summer writing ghost stories. Polidori wrote The Vampyre and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Contrary to what many people believe, Frankenstein was in fact the creator, not the monster; he tried to create the perfect man, but it all went horribly wrong. This tale of science out of control was one of the earliest flickers of doubt about the supremacy of progress. In more recent times, with the advent of genetically modified (GM) foods and plants, Frankenstein has given his name to that tabloid newspaper favourite, 'Frankenstein Food'.


William Gibson coined the term Cyberspace in the 1986 novel Neuromancer. The book portrays a chilling urban landscape, both sophisticated and decaying; but many of the events of the book and its sequels take place in Cyberspace even though, as Gibson says, 'there is no 'there' there'. Gibson had not seen Ridley Scott's film Bladerunner when he wrote the book which suggests a common angst about the zeitgeist. His definition of cyberspace is the 'graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system'. The books are hugely influential and have spawned a large number of movies including The Matrix, but the word 'cyberspace' has moved away from this all-encompassing definition and dystopian origins, shrinking to mean the World Wide Web, with blander and more commercial nuances.


The Doctor Who team at the BBC invented the Tardis (standing for 'Time And Relative Dimensions In Space'). Although its primary purpose is as a means of transport, it has come to refer to something which is bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. This is an observable feature of a surprising number of things, including the handbags carried by many women.


In 1921 the Czech author Karel Capek produced a play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots) that featured machines created to simulate human beings. The roots of the word Robot go back to feudal times, and the word 'robota' refers to work which is a duty, and not done for love or for remuneration. In Capek's play the robots show distinct similarities to Frankenstein's monster when they run amok and try to wipe out the human race.

Isaac Asimov created the three laws of robotics to postulate a way of preventing technology running wild. These rules are explained in the linked entry.

In Conclusion

From the 19th Century came great scientific and technological progress, whilst the 20th Century took some of these advances and used them to kill and control more individuals than ever before. In light of this turn of events, it is perhaps not surprising that many writers of fiction were addressing topics such as distrust of science in the 19th Century, distrust of government in the 20th Century, and the dark side of the human psyche throughout the period. They had to create new concepts in order to do so, and these concepts resonated with so many of their fellow human beings that the names they coined have entered into every-day usage. Our language is the stronger for it, and our meme-pool the deeper.

1It would be really nice to be able to include meme in this list; but as it was coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, which is not a work of fiction, it doesn't qualify. A 'meme' is an idea, concept or behaviour which takes on a life of its own; Dawkins includes the wearing of baseball caps backwards in his examples.2Pure and unrealised science fiction is outside the scope of this entry.3Lolita was first published in France (1955) after being rejected by a string of American publishers. After being pronounced unobjectionable by the US Customs office it was subsequently heralded by ovations from writers, professors, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic.

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