Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Sent from Coventry

The logo for Coventry's year as city of culture 2021The ancient city of Coventry, in England’s West Midlands, is home to the University of Warwick (and, of course, thus the Cosmic Stories blog). It is also the current UK City of Culture and a year-long series of events (running from mid 2021) has explored its history and vibrant contemporary culture. In this bonus blog entry, I take a look at Coventry’s notable footprint in the science fiction genre.

Sent to Coventry

Direct references to the city of Coventry in science fiction tend to be concentrated into two principal themes. The first of these builds on the widespread British phrase “Sent to Coventry” for a form of social ostracism in which an individual’s presence (or even existence) is not acknowledged. No one will speak to, assist or interact with a person punished this way.

The Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom in central CoventryThe origins of the phrase are unclear. The majority of sources suggest that it may have originated with the response of unhappy residents of the city to individuals forced on them under military authority - either when the city was used as a prison for parliamentarians in the seventeenth century English Civil War or when a local regiment of army or militia was billeted on the town at a later date. Another proposal is that liverymen (skilled artisans) expelled from a London Guild went to Coventry, which was a “free-town”, where the London Guilds had no influence (although Coventry certainly had powerful crafts-based guilds of its own from the medieval period onwards). Yet another, although historically unlikely, suggestion has been that this punishment was meted out to “Peeping Tom” - the transgressor who sneaked a look at Lady Godiva’s famous naked ride through the city in the eleventh century.

Whatever its origins, this form of ostracism was at the core of an influential work by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. His short story “Coventry” (published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1940) posited a United States in which criminals were not confined in prisons but rather banished to a lawless and unregulated region from which they were not permitted to leave. After banishment, they were essentially ignored. While the protagonist imagines the result will be a libertarian utopia, the Coventry region is in fact splintered into several dysfunctional and tyrannical states. Heinlein’s story focuses on the dangers of ignoring a problem in this way, or attempting to brush negative issues under the carpet - the residents of this region ultimately pose a very real threat to the rest of America and potentially the world.

Heinlein short story and its perspective on freedom, together what is needed for humanity to fulfill its potential, influenced the founder of Dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard, and others [1] - particularly those who were most interested in the liberatarian ethos and its limits. Perhaps inevitably, it has also been subject to analysis by historians and researchers of the field.

The Disaster of November 1940

Coventry’s second main area of influence on science fiction also draws on its long history - this time a more recent, tragic and well-recorded incident. In November of 1940, at the height of the Second World War, a bombing raid codenamed “Moonlight Sonata” targetted Coventry’s industrial strength with high explosive and incendiary bombs. About 568 people were killed on the night of the 14th November 1940, almost half of the estimated total of about 1236 killed in bombing raids in the city during the war. The raids and resultant fires destroyed most of the city centre and much of Coventry’s extensive well-preserved medieval heritage, including, in the November 1940 raid, the city’s famous medieval cathedral building. The image of the cathedral ruins became iconic of the death and destruction the city had endured.

Coventry’s blitz was seen as an influential moment in the war, leading to an escalation in the bombing of both German and British cities, and it featured heavily in the carefully-controlled media of the time. However the death and destruction took on another aspect in hindsight as a result of a 1974 book. This claimed that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had received advance warning of the Coventry raid from the Ultra code-breaking programme, but had chosen not to warn the city in order to preserve the secret that German codes were being broken - effectively sacrificing the people of Coventry for the greater good. Historians and witnesses of the time have disputed both the existence of such a warning and its interpretation, but the idea persists and has resonated through science fiction narratives as an object lesson for those faced with similar dilemmas.

Captain Sheridan from the episode In the Shadow of Z'ha'dumIn the television series Babylon 5 (1993-1998) episode “In the Shadow of Z’Ha’Dum” (1995), Captain Sheridan captures Morden, an agent of the enemy Shadows. If the man is released, he will almost certainly cause future destruction and could potentially cost thousands of lives. However if he is detained, the Shadows will become aware of the extent of the protagonists’ knowledge and preparations for the coming war - which could lead to defeat of the entire alliance of known worlds and the death of millions. In discussion with security chief Zack Allen, Sheridan explicitly cites Churchill’s decision over Coventry as a parallel for this dilemma:

Sheridan: "They kept the secret. There was no evacuation. And on November 14, 1940, Coventry was destroyed. The dead were… piled up like cordwood! I-I've seen newsreels of Churchill visiting the ruins a few days later. And you can just see it in his eyes, the knowledge of what he'd done. Dark, haunted. All these years I've never been able to get that image out of my head."

Zack: "Well, I'm glad it's a decision I don't have to make. I don't think I could live with myself. How many lives is a secret worth?"

Book cover of SCE - Echoes of CoventryThe same question also informs the novella Echoes of Coventry (Richard C White, 2006), one of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers (SCE) novels to spin off from the television series Star Trek. In this particular story, one of the characters recalls their service for Starfleet Intelligence during that universe’s Dominion War. Intercepting highly encrypted material, a small team first cracks the encryption and then translates enemy messages, and are able to warn their superiors of an imminent attack on an isolated starbase. Initially jubilant at their success, they are shocked to learn some months later that their warning was not acted on - the military information being intercepted on the cracked channel was too valuable to lose, and “the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few”. While there are similarities to the Babylon 5 example the focus here is on the code-breakers rather than the decision makers, their sense of betrayal and ambivalent guilt at the knowledge that they might have saved specific individual lives, but at the cost of an unidentified multitude.

Book cover of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
This era of Coventry’s war time past itself provides a key setting for the 1997 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog (or how we found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at last) by Connie Willis.

In this story, a powerful individual chooses to rebuild St Michael’s cathedral in a future Oxford of the 2050s, long after even the 1950s replacement cathedral building has been sold off by a diminished Church. With an impressive level of obsessiveness, she sends time-travelling historians back to survey the no-longer extant building, requiring information from as close as possible to its destruction in order to ensure that every detail is accurate. It gradually becomes clear that many of the travelers’ problems arise due to the critical influence of the Coventry raid (again firmly tied to the Ultra code breaking) on the final outcome of WWII. Any action taken by those with preknowledge of the cathedral’s destruction risks the generation of paradoxes and space-time itself acts to minimise this risk.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, a comedic narrative follows the hunt for details regarding a rather hideous Victorian vase lost in the destruction. However ultimately the time-travelling characters find themselves amidst the trauma and tragedy of the raid itself:

“There was a dull boom as something landed outside the Girdler’s Chapel, lighting it for an instant. In the seconds before the light faded, I could see the Fifteenth-Century wooden cross with the carving of a child kneeling at the foot of it. In another half hour, Provost Howard would see it, behind a wall of flames, and the whole east end of the church would be on fire.” (SF Masterworks edition, 2013, pg 419)

 And all too soon:

“Our beautiful, beautiful cathedral. I had always put it in the same class as the bishop’s bird stump - an irritating antiquity - and there were certainly more beautiful cathedrals. But standing here now, watching it burn, I understood what it had meant to Provost Howard to build the new cathedral, modernist-ugly as it was.” (428)

“It felt like a direct hit. The blast rocked the cathedral and lit it with a blinding white light. I staggered up off my knees and then stopped, staring out across the nave. The force had knocked the cathedral momentarily clear of smoke, and in the garish white afterlight I could see everything: the statue above the pulpit engulfed in flames, its hand raised like a drowning man’s; the stalls in the children’s chapel, their irreplaceable misereres burning with a qqueer yellow light; the altar in the Capper’s chapel.” (430)

 Here the rich detail evokes Coventry’s medieval and commercial past and the drama is made all the more emotive by the proceeding light-hearted storyline. This experience and its bittersweet pathos colours the narrator’s actions through the final section of their quest and the eventual recovery of the long-lost treasure.

Sent from Coventry

While these two themes dominate the influence of Coventry on science fiction, the city has touched the genre in other ways. Science fiction creative artists [2] born in Coventry include E M Forster, Mark Barrowcliffe, Cyril Connolly, Alan Hunter, Ian Marter, Iain Pears, Malcolm Rose, Leone Ross and Steve Waters, while mathematician and science fiction writer Ian Stewart worked at the University of Warwick.

“Coventry” has also appeared as a vessel name in the lists of the Royal Navy dating back to the seventeenth century, and perhaps unsurprisingly has also made its name into the rolls of science fiction starships - it is recognised as a class of ships (together with their eponymous exemplar) in the Star Trek universe.

Coventry’s deep roots have given rise to an ongoing impact, both as a City of Culture and in the science fiction genre. The growing importance of the city’s university-led information economy, together with the establishment of the University of Warwick’s thriving astrophysics research group and interdisciplinary Centre for Exoplanets and Habitability, offer the potential for exciting future contributions to both science and science fiction. It will be interesting to see where future references to the city will take readers.

 “Sent from Coventry”, Elizabeth Stanway. Cosmic Stories blog. 27th February 2022.

[1] “Coventry” was apparently also the name of a very early, large, science-fiction-based, live role-playing universe which was popular in California in the 1960s. This was likely the result of influence from the works of Robert Heinlein. [return to text]

[2] Here i’m just quoting those listed as Coventry born or resident in the authoritative Science Fiction Encyclopaedia. I’m sure there are others not included here. [return to text]

Image sources: Photograph of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom clock sourced from Coventry Telegraph. Book covers and other images in the public domain sourced online.

All views expressed herein are my own and not those of the University of Warwick.