Article: Charts, Diagrams, Forms, and Tables in Science Fiction (John Brunner, Larry Niven, Christopher Priest, John Sladek, et al.)

(From Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969), 224)

First we must honor the book sacrificed in the making of this post: the spine of my Picador 1977 edition of Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship (1976) needs some drastic surgery (glue) after I attempted to scan its dark interior….

As of late I’ve been fascinated by pseudo-knowledge in science fiction and speculative fiction–the scholarly afterward in The Iron Dream (1972), the real medical citations in The Hospital Ship (1976), the invented medical citations in Doctor Rat (1976), and “diagrammatic” SF covers filled with maps or anthropological diagrams.

Whatever form it takes, pseudo-knowledge—perhaps derived from our world or even “real” knowledge in our world modified and inserted into another imaginary one—adds, at the most basic level, a veneer of veracity. The most obvious category, and the one I am least interested in, is scientifically accurate theories and technologies extrapolated from present knowledge or applied to future worlds. Consult, and perhaps financially support, Winchell Chung‘s amazing resource Atomic Rockets if that literary technique fascinates you.

To be clear, sometimes this knowledge is real but the ways in which it is applied or modified for the purposes of narrative are fictional. Science fiction is speculation not prediction. Speculation rooted in telling a good story. As readers, we must tackle the ways authors integrate the real into the imaginary and the purposes of doing so.

Visual Pseudo-Knowledge

This post will focus on visual manifestations of pseudo-knowledge and the ways in which authors use the authority implicit in the table, diagram, chart, and form. This is far from an encyclopedic post and if there are any other charts, diagrams, forms, and tables that resonated with you I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


The future history often uses the timeline to graft a chronology on the stories and invents that will unfold. The first that came to mind was the Timeline for the Known Space sequence of stories by Larry Niven. I scanned this in from his collection Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (1975).

One of multiple appendices in John Sladek’s The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970) lays out the dates, in his standard satirical fashion, that have only tangential relationship to the actual novel. The appendix fools with encyclopedic notions of gathering all relevant information. Here one is hard pressed to identify the relevancy…

There are many many more examples of the timeline… In Michael Bishop’s fix-up novel/short story collection Catacomb Years (1979), which I lent to my father, he charts out the future history of Atlanta and where each story falls.

Diagraming the Unknown

Sometimes the author, aware of the authority a chart or diagram implies, uses the technique to address what is unknown. In Christopher Priest’s masterful short story “The Real Time World” (1971), he subverts the authority of chart by having his unreliable narrator attempt to understand the world via a diagram. The bare scientific language, given emphasis by the scientific diagram, gives way to a gulf of uncertainty despite protestations that “In cold factual language: I’m a sane man in an insane society” (134).

John Sladek in The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970) uses the diagram to chart Bob’s slow realization that he is sentient although his entire being has been reduced to code. The most visually striking image is a map of the human face where the brain area remains “unexplored.” It even has a compass although distance and direction are meaningless in this geography….

Diagraming Your Own Stories

We continue with John Sladek, the master of the diagram.  In the afterward to his collection Keep The Giraffe Burning (1977), supposedly inspired by the doodles of his friend (really a pseudonym he wrote under) “Ms. Cassandra Knye” (200), John Sladek ridicules readers who attempt to find some deeper meaning within the stories. Starting with the short story “Elephant with a Wooden Leg” (1975) Sladek proceeds to lay out a ridiculous series of visual connections between stories all the stories in the collection returning, full circle, to the elephant with one leg. I have reproduced a selection below:

Games and their component meanings

In Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969), which I have yet to read, numerous images are included in the text that diagram games played between the characters. I will leave them without analysis as I have little knowledge of the novel….


One tantalizing image of a mysterious satellite from John Varley’s Titan (1979)….

(From John Varley’s Titan (1979), one of three preliminary maps and graphics by Connor Freff Cochran)

Establishing Context

The novel that inspired my post holds a special place in my heart: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968). This New Wave masterpiece, famous for its immersive world building, was my first exposure to experimental SF (or that I was cognizant of). The novel deploys a rigorous structure divided by heading: “context”, “the happening world”, “tracking with closeups”,  and “continuity.”

A handful of the “context” sections contain text divided into tables. Although far from more flashy visuals we’ve discussed, they are effective attempts to instill the sense of information overload central to Brunner’s overpopulated future.

Another wonderful example of visual as context can be found in Martin Bax’s Ballard-esque The Hospital Ship (1976). I’m almost finished reading the story and will discuss his jarring post-modern techniques at greater length in a proper review….  Here Bax includes an invented form that characters filled out upon entering the Hospital Ship. As Bax himself was a doctor, the overlap between real and imaginary medical practices creates a fascinating tapestry. Yes, this is an invented form but it takes on the guise of real medical practice.

Bonus: The Diagram in Action

And finally, let us conclude with Michael Butterworth’s short story “Circularisation of Condensed Conventional Straight-Line Word-Image Structures” (1969). The story does not function without its diagrams.  Appeared in New Worlds, 192 (July 1969) ed. Langdon Jones. Full issue available online here.

For more articles consult the INDEX

For more explorations of cover art consult the INDEX

34 thoughts on “Article: Charts, Diagrams, Forms, and Tables in Science Fiction (John Brunner, Larry Niven, Christopher Priest, John Sladek, et al.)

  1. Great post. Always love visual aids in fiction, whether spot illustrations, charts, maps or just readers jotting down oddball notes in my used copies! Sladek in particular did great many wonderful things with his books from schematics and diagrams to lists and illustrations and just plain wordplay. I click as I move.

    Of course all this reminds me of the wonderful use of words by Bester, too.

    Curious to hear your thoughts on the Bax book. Have it (being a Ballard fan) but never read it.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I was going to include a few from Langdon Jones — he plays with text as well, making diagramatic connections between words. But I thought I would save my scans for a future post!

      Bax’s The Hospital Ship is proving a fascinating reading experience. His background as a doctor is put on full display. He cites real articles, provides a real biography, and even has citations for J. G. Ballard stories! It can be a jarring technique but I appreciate it. I’ll have a few review up eventually — still have around 50 pages to read.

      Bester was never an author I really appreciated. I’ve read his major works and some of his short fiction. Maybe I should procure another short story collection of his…. Have a favorite non-novel work? I ask about short fiction as I’ve read The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination and am rather ambivalent towards both…


      • Another fine MD author of sf is Michael Blumlein, remember his MOVEMENT OF MOUNTAINS being rather extraordinary.

        It’s been over 20 years since I last read any Bester, and not sure his short works will stand out if the two major novels didn’t. I think STARBURST was a pretty good collection, but the details are hazy.

        I think Charles Harness’ work falls into this same category, though far less known. I tend to love the extravagant end of space opera, Barrington Bayley, Harness’s PARADOX MEN, Philip Jose Farmer’s UNREASONING MASK and their ilk. Bester kind of lines up with these guys.

    • Maybe I’ll put together a post on text as diagram focusing on letter positioning rather than other types of diagrams.

      I read an intriguing (but not satisfying example recently) by Eddy C. Bertin,, “The City, Dying” (1968). I reproduced rather than scanned one of its sillier play with text moments in.

  2. The final chapter of Disch’s 334 opens with a diagram explaining the principle organising its 43 vignettes. A copy of the diagram is online at:

    Barrington Bayley’s “Four Colour Problem” includes 5, count em, 5! geometric diagrams.

    Whether you want to consider the image at the end of Langdon Jones “Coming of the Sun” a diagram, an illustration or a calligram is probably a matter of opinion.

  3. I tweeted that I thought Olaf Stapledon was probably one of the first SF authors to do this with his Timelines in Star Maker and Last and First Men. You can see the examples in the tweet:

    I love this sort of thing, but it is rare and I don’t think was encouraged in SF because the quality of the paper and printing in the genre didn’t really lend itself to any sort of fine detail. I’m reminded of the maps of Middle Earth that they reproduced in the paperbacks of Lord of the Rings that I read as a kid: everything was blurry and you could barely read the place names.

  4. Given the usual caveat “it’s been 25 years since..” my recollection of Michael Blumlein and that specific novel (MOVEMENT OF MOUNTAINS) is one of in the Ballard/Cronenberg lineage: Intelligent but approachable, somewhat detached but with queasy elements, never going overboard with them. I’m also thinking of some of the later William Barton novels (ACTS OF CONSCIENCE and WHEN WE WERE REAL) being of a similar tone.

    • For various reasons I haven’t been reading a lot of post-1980 SF lately — at one point I did. I’ll add some of these authors (Blumlein etc) to my list of what I’ll read when I eventually move out of my current area of interest.

      Thanks again for the suggestions.

  5. Catacomb Years also has an interesting chart that shows the overlapping lifespans of the characters against the timespan covered by the stories. I’ve never seen its like.

    • Definitely! I mention it in the post. Unfortunately I lent my copy to my dad so I couldn’t scan it in. It’s a fantastic book. I wrote a short review here. And I had a guest post series on Michael Bishop’s work where my friend 2theD contributed a longer review!

  6. Boggles…just boggles. The work and workman-personship that goes into such drawings and details of these universes. And there is Dante, watching down (or up) at your work. And here I am, paging through my Milton text, looking at the cosmos and the cosmology of that hoary-headed swain who had angels ascending and descending the chain, or some creatures sneaking into the Garden of Eden…slinking, serpent-like…through the opening, through the black hole. You are a great explainer Mr Boaz. Carry on!

  7. Though it pales in comparison in terms of effort, I remember Alfred Bester also did some strange things with text and lettering in both The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination…. And beyond this my head gears are turning (slowly). I know there are other novels I’ve read with non-textual content besides photos or art…

    • Harlan Ellison’s 1970 novella “The Region of Sleep” (besides insertions of various abstract images by Jack Gaughan) has text suddenly running in columns, running at 90 degrees across the page, unspooling in a giant circle. If he could have had text in different colours like the recent folio edition of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury he’d probably have done that too. Reprints of I have No Mouth and I Must Scream include genuine computer read-outs at relevant moments.

      There’s a short story by Gahan Wilson in Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) which is untitleable because Wilson uses an ink blob. The blob is an alien and each time it’s mentioned in the story Wilson draws it as growing and evolving until it’s about to pounce from the page at the reader.

      Maybe not quite the same but both Sladek and Charles Platt published illustrated choose-your-own adventures. Sladek’s “The Nose” was hand-made in 1969, while Platt’s “Norman vs America” was in Quark #4 (1971, edited by Delany)

      Even Fritz Leiber has one, and its probably significant that it’s in a 1968 issue of New Worlds. The narrative of “The Square root of Brain” alternates between a standard sf story and encylopaedia entries on matters mentioned in the story-plain, but then it starts including illustrated excerpts as well.

      Looking at all the other examples people have mentioned, it’s evident that it’s primarily a subset of the New Wave’s playing with form such as stories written wholly in stream-of-consciousness or which are allusively fractured.

  8. I remember that several of us learned to play Sprouts at school after reading the rules in Piers Anthony’s Macroscope. It’s a neat little game and diverted us from Noughts & Crosses and Hangman. We usually played Partner Whist or Bridge though.
    John Sladek had a story called Masterton and the Clerks in New Worlds in 1967, re-printed in several places, but I have it in his 1982 collection, Alien Accounts. In it is a diagram of how paperwork proceeds around an office, from desk to desk…
    Masterton & the Clerks Diagram

    Rudy Rucker produced a couple of schematics of how his early novel, Space Time Donuts was plotted.
    Plotline for Spacetime Donuts
    In PS Press’s Outspoken Author volume, Surfing the Gnarl, he also came up with a grid showing how he analysed science fiction
    Seek Ye the Gnarl!
    I have a feeling that there were diagrams in his novel White Light, but I didn’t think to check my copy!

  9. People have mentioned Bester’s synaesthetic use of typography (and he also uses unusual symbols, such as using alchemical symbols in text iirc). More directly, though, right at the beginning of TSMD he summarises the character of Gully Foyle by ‘reproducing’ a personnel assessment form.

    There are two other examples that I’m sure I’ve seen but that are alluding me. The more interesting one is what that first Piers Anthony diagram reminds me of: it’s some sort of chemical or physical diagram, but intentionally giving a kabbalistic or mystical impression. But i can’t think where on earth it might have been. I’m also sure I’ve seen an example in, I think it was a short story, about alien codes/ciphers/languages, in which the author presented an example of the visual code for the reader. Then again, I may be being influenced there by the many times I must have encountered that in children’s stories (you know, Enid Blyton mystery style books).

    [on which note: I kind of get the idea that, like illustrations, diagrams were much more ‘acceptable’ in Victorian and Edwardian fiction than they are today…]

    As a fantasy fan, of course I see many of these diagrams through the lens of our own grand tradition of the Opening Map (also found in many children’s books…). Many of these diagrams either genuinely or ironically present “maps” of the action of the book in a non-geographical space, often a more overtly “scientific” one, evoking graphs and particle diagrams rather than cartography. As a (primarily, at least) fantasy fan, this seems like one more part of the mask by which science fiction evokes the trappings of science as a robe to hide the fantasy novel under the surface.
    [That John Varley “diagram” in particular screams “old-fashioned fantasy” at me. Look at his choice of an intentionally archaic, mediaeval font… and of course the blocky, black-dominated woodcut style]

    Come to think of it, fantasy maps are often more than just maps themselves. In addition to the way they try to shape the reader’s sympathies through the implicit perspective of the map-making culture (what is named and what unnamed, what named ‘naturally’ and what in the manner of an explorer, and so on), it’s common for fantasy maps to embed elements of the story. Most directly this can be done by including a route diagram within the map. More subtly, plot elements can be foreshadowed through the map by plot-specific naming (like marking “the rock where they met the bear” or “the site of the battle” or the like). The children’s stories of Arthur Ransome, with his maps of fictional Lake District lakes, located at the front of the book but with location references that only make sense AFTER you’ve read it, spring to mind. And maps can also embed worldbuilding beyond geography, in the way they often mark the locations of past events (like battles) or locations of former import (the ruins of such-and-such).

    Another rare but traditional device in fantasy is the genealogical tree. Tolkien, for instance, uses trees both to display the familial relationships within the great houses of elves and men, but also to show the relationship between different elven nations/languages. In more “respectable” fantasy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez famously includes a tree (or perhaps that’s the generosity of his publishers?) in One Hundred Years of Solitude (because when everyone is either Aureliano or Jose Arcadio it’s easy to get confused…). Are there any SF novels that employ trees, either for character or, perhaps, for cultures?

    Speaking of which – are there any major SF books to employ delta-V maps? That would seem to be an example of a map that was both powerfully evocative (explanatory but alien) and at the same time genuinely useful (since delta-V ‘distances’ aren’t intuitive for most people).

    Another old form that fantasy uses, but that it’s inherited from a long tradition, is the Dramatis Personae: a list of names of the characters who are going to appear in the novel (or sometimes who HAVE appeared in the novel), sometimes sorted into categories, sometimes with brief explanations (generally geared to entice rather than explain).

    It’s interesting that fantasy accepts these devices, but largely relegates them to the periphery of the novel, before and after the main story. This on the one hand reflect a sort of sense that they are ‘illegitimate’, not what a story is meant to contain, but at the same time that placement actually reinforces their reality. The map is presented from publisher to reader directly – not conjured up by a character within the narrative. By peripheralising the pseudoknowledge (now here’s a pretentious clause!), placing it alongside or even outside ‘OOC’ sections like forewards and prefaces, the publisher gives added ‘reality’ to it. On the other hand, I do think that the use of these devices is dwindling considerably, due both to taste and to technology. Ironically, the movement from physical printing presses to digital texts has apparently limited the publisher – even things like footnotes are difficult to render in e-books, let alone tables and maps and whatnot. [likewise, some of the symbols Bester and others created through overtyping (typing one character, backspacing and then typing a second character in the same space) are impossible to render in many modern digital systems.

    Talking of pseudoknowledge more generally than just visually marked forms, fantasy of course also has the tradition of the appendix. Tolkien’s appendices even included diagrams of calendrical systems. A more subtle fantasy tradition is the epigraph: a brief paragraph introducing each chapter. Sometimes (as in, say, Watership Down) these are quotations from real-world texts that provide information or thematic context for the following chapter. Other times, however, they’re quotations from fictional texts. Robin Hobb’s novels about Fitzchivalry Farseer, for instance, which are narrated in hindsight by the protagonist many years after the events ‘take place’, often begin their chapters with brief passages from fictional texts – each chapter is in a way a game in which the reader tries to guess ahead of time how on earth the passage will become relevent to this chapter. But to add an additional twist, many of those passages are from texts written by the narrator at ANOTHER time altogether, and often under pseudonyms. Sometimes it’s only in a later book that we realise “who wrote” an epigraph from an earlier book, or when, or what it meant to them.
    [A variant on this approach is the ironically archaic “in which” passage: “Chapter Seven: In Which Our Protagonist….”, with the ‘in which’ giving a usually accurate but typically misleading or confusing description of what will happen in the chapter.]

    In the modern world, there is a whole new dimension to pseudoknowledge, because the reader may be directed to a repository of pseudoknowledge outside of the book itself (ie online). Things like maps and timelines and the like are now often hosted by websites, blurring the line between book and not-book, and between author and not-author – because that ‘pseudoknowledge’ may be created by the author but presented by a fan, created by the author and presented by them but outside the confines of the book, or created and presented by a fan – and all these options may variously be canonised, recommended, recognised, tolerated and/or ignored by the author and/or their publisher, and in the case of series may be reincorporated into later books. In short, it becomes unclear what is “official” pseudoknowledge and what is not.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts on the subject from the perspective of an adjacent and often overlapping genre. Personally, I’m a ‘conworlder’ myself, so ‘pseudoknowledge’ is kind of a hobby of mine… for me at least, the pseudoknowledge is often more central than the story, and that inversion isn’t uncommon historically. Tolkien, for example, saw The Lord of the Rings as, as it were, pseudonarrative, colourful background material for the grammar and lexicon of Quenya and Sindarin. Similarly, in the 1980s and 1990s particularly, the success of RPGs meant that hundreds of novels (mostly fantasy but also SF to a lesser extent) were published as effectively ‘pseudonarratives’ to provide background colour to the core knowledge of the RPG settings and mechanics…

    [i suppose something could be said here about the use of tie-in novels as themselves a form of ‘pseudoknowledge’. Novels about, say, key moments in the history of the Galactic Empire, were written as a form of contextual pseudoknowledge supporting the Star Wars films – effectively the equivalent of footnotes or appendices, but grown to massive stature…]

    • Thank you for your comment! Due to the length of your veritable article I was unsure of how to respond… hence my delay (my apologies). If you are interested in a longer conversation I’ll respond to other elements once I hear from you.

      I’ve decided to select a few elements that intrigued or resonated with me. I must confess, I am not a huge fan at this moment of a lot of pseudo-knowledge used in science fiction for the sake of fantasy-esque “world building.” I could have included maps from various “medieval” SF works (medievalism is certainly a hot topic these days) or even family trees. And yes, like so many kids, I made my own fantasy maps, alphabets, cityscapes, city plans, temple plans —- all inspired by Tolkein.

      This is to say, I deliberately focused my post on attempts by SF authors to engage with the notion of the authority implicit in the visual (and often encyclopedic) manifestations of pseudo-knowledge. Rather than maps mapping physical geographies, or diagrams for the sake of diagrams, I am interested in diagrams to fool with the notion of diagrams, and maps that map the un-mappable. At this point I’m enchanted more by the metaphoric maps that chart places of inspiration in Hoban’s The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz than a map of an alien planet….

      If you’re interested I can scan in a family tree created by John Sladek. Certainly not a normal family tree — and charts genealogies only tangential to the story.

      • Sorry, wasn’t trying to write an ‘article’, or to challenge your interests. Was just trying to give some context from a different perspective – an adjacent genre that does many of the same things. For instance, you talk about “engaging with the notion of the authority implicity in the visual and often encyclopedic manifestations of pseudo-knowledge”, which is exactly what the tropes of fantasy – the map, the tree… if you delete ‘visual’ then also the encyclopaedic epigraph – are trying to do. That’s why I mention, for example, the tendency to put such things in the outer matter of the volume, outside the ‘novel’ proper – by placing them outside the narrative, the creators implicitly position their pseudo-knowledge as extra-narrative.

        Oddly, though, it’s also what i DON’T think your more ‘enchanting’ example do. What we might call the more ‘ostentatious’ or ‘flamboyant’ uses of diagrams and pseudo-diagrams, where the artifice is evident, more something to be applauded by connoisseurs, like a Dutch angle, than to genuinely give the impression of sober authority. That is, where traditional visual aids attempting to make the story seem more real and grounded, the flamboyant visual aids that evolved from them (and in many cases seem to directly invoke them) attempt to make the story less grounded, more overtly fantastical. [to take a boring example: Bester’s uses of typography, including the reproduction of tables, is part of a synaesthetic style that assaults the senses, bewilders and awes, not something designed to reassure, settle, and yield the feeling of ordinaryness and reality.]

        If you like ‘metaphoric maps’, then perhaps we ought to mention one of the originals, in a very old fantasy novel avant la lettre: The Pilgrim’s Progress. Wikipedia has a reproduction of a map (of “The Road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City”] from an edition from the late 18th century – it would be interesting to find out when the first map was attached to the novel.

        But if I overstepped, I’m sorry to have done so; no offence was intended. I just found the post interesting and was thinking out loud about what it made me think about,not trying to be confrontational.

        • No worries. I did not think you were challenging my perspective nor did I take offense! I meant one thing and one thing only, to delineate my focus more clearly as I purposefully selected only some elements to explore in my post. And to acknowledge that a lot of more fantasy types of pseudo-knowledge are present in science fiction but I chose not to focus on them…. hence why I dangled the Varley diagram without much explanation. Haha. And I am certainly not bothered in any shape or form by a long comment 🙂

          I too would be interested in knowing when the first map was attached to a novel!

      • “That is, where traditional visual aids attempting to make the story seem more real and grounded, the flamboyant visual aids that evolved from them (and in many cases seem to directly invoke them) attempt to make the story less grounded, more overtly fantastical”

        I would posit something else derived from this…. As a lot of those above were created in the New Wave movement (as you probably know), they attempt to translate non-SF types of experimentation into a SF form. Are they really trying to make the story less grounded, more overtly fantastical? Or, are they trying to commentate more seriously about genre and interpretation of genre perhaps by playing up the artificiality of a chart with invented information, or a diagram of an invented technology.

        I’m dodging the Bester sections of your comment for two reasons: I read his major novels and quite a few short stories years ago and I’m not a huge fan (although I respect how influential he is!). It would be fun to reread his stories thinking more about how he uses text.

  10. Excellent post – late to the delectable SF dinner as always. As far as the “veneer of veracity” in SF goes, I believe Wells called it “jiggery-pokery” – but what fun, if it’s done well.

  11. A fascinating article. I’d forgotten about the diagram in Priest’s Real Time World. He now says that he’s very much against mapping in literature, hence his recent attempts to confound any sort of graphical representation of the structure of his ‘Dream Archipelago’ in the novels ‘The Islanders’ and ‘The Gradual’! And – not SF but close – Mark Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ is packed with typographic diagrams, distortions and anomalies, on the nature of reality.

    • Thanks!

      Mapping in the traditional sense? As, of course, the diagram he includes in “Real-Time World” maps no “real” information — but rather a character’s perception (and delusion) of “truth.” Which, along with any other interpretation, has no more value in understand the world in which they all reside…

      I’d love to know where he talks about “mapping.” Was it an interview? Article? Can you give me a link or citation?

      Thanks again for the comment.

  12. Pingback: Fragment(s): Monday Maps and Diagrams (Science Fiction) — Jack Vance’s Trullion: Alastor 2262 (1973) | Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

  13. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 1/11/22 Look At My Fingers: Four Pixels, Four Scrolls. Zero Pixels, Zero Scrolls! | File 770

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