by Alan MacGilivray

Queerer and Queerer

October 28, 2009 | by Alan MacGilivray

IN 1817 THE YOUNG Scottish advocate, Thomas Erskine, in later life to become Lord Erskine and British Chancellor of the Exchequer, published a speculative utopian fiction, Armata, in which a ship sailing from New York to China is driven by storms into unknown waters and finds itself traversing a narrow and dangerous channel that connects the South Pole to a hitherto unsuspected satellite of Earth called Armata. This planet “had a ring like Saturn, which, by reason of our atmosphere, could not be seen at such an immense distance, and which was accessible only by a channel so narrow and guarded by surrounding rocks and whirlpools, that even the vagrancy of modern navigators had never fallen in with it.” This story is probably the first serious attempt by a Scottish writer to produce what we would now call science fiction, and, although Erskine has a problem matching the wind-powered sea transport and the geographical and scientific knowledge of his time to the new concept of interplanetary travel, he was clearly possessed of the speculative cast of mind, the capacity for imaginative visualisation of future and alternative possibilities, that is an indispensable characteristic of the science fiction writer as we know him or her today.

Science fiction exists as a powerful duchy within the realm of literature. It may always have existed as the hard speculative end of imaginative narrative. If it did not exist, it would certainly have to be invented, particularly in an age that sees massive scientific and technological development. More than any other genre of fiction, it deals with systems and ideas rather than with character and emotion. It is the only literary genre that has as its primary upfront purpose the intention of speculating about where humanity is heading, how it may get there and what it will find when it arrives. The systems that operate or could operate within society, the scientific and techno logical ideas and devices either real or potential, these provide the mainsprings for a powerful, thoughtful and exciting fiction that is supremely of the modern age. And if we Scots pride ourselves on being a thoughtful people, a nation with a philosophical tendency, a speculative society, guardians of the democratic intellect, then science fiction ought to come naturally to us as a readymade tool for our fictional expression. One of Thomas Erskine’s contemporaries, John Galt, certainly created the idea of the “theoretical history” in his social novels; other Scots writers ought to be capable of creating “theoretical futures”.

However, until quite recently, that has not been the case. It cannot be said that there was any discernible continuous tradition of science fiction writing in Scotland through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. In one of the most recent reference books on the subject, the Orbit Ency-clopaedia of Science Fiction (1999), there are only about sixty-five entries relating to specifically Scottish writers who have produced science fiction novels and stories. There are probably more writers who are concealed under the general description of ‘UK writer’, but even so it hardly amounts to a major national contribution to the genre when the Orbit Encyclopaedia contains over 4300 entries and countries like Albania and the Czech Republic, unlike Scotland, rate special entries for SF achievement. Certainly the situation has improved considerably, with the last few decades recording a number of significant initiatives.

A small number of writers have come through to more than merely Scottish recognition, notably Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod, of whom more later. There have been dedicated science fiction magazines based in Scotland, mainly Nebula, which ran for 41 issues between 1952 and 1959, and the much more recent Spectrum SF, whose nine issues in the early 2000s raised expectations which have unfortunately been frustrated. Several science fiction conferences were held in Glasgow in the 1980s, along with short story competitions, out of which came Starfield: Science Fiction by Scottish Writers (1989), edited by Duncan Lunan. Most recently, and very promisingly, Glasgow played host last August to Interaction: the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention and 2005 Eurocon. It was at this prestigious conference that the collection, Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction, was launched, the first specifically Scottish anthology of such writing since Starfield.

Nova Scotia, with its evocative title suggesting a Scottish starburst rather than a Canadian maritime province, is a pleasure to read. It is a well-produced paperback with a handsome (but uncredited) cover design. The editors, Neil Williamson and Andrew J. Wilson, have good track records in the writing and reviewing of science fiction. Most importantly, the stories are, without exception, entertaining and, at times, thought-provoking. This reviewer was particularly struck by ‘Lest We Forget’ by Marion Arnott, Ron Butlin’s ‘Five Fantastic Fictions’, ‘A Knot of Toads’ by Jane Yolen and ‘The Hard Stuff’ by John Grant (Paul Barnett). ‘Lest We Forget’ is an eerie story about the death of a First World War veteran and the ghostly events surrounding it. ‘A Knot of Toads’, another supernatural story in the M.R. James manner, is set in Fife and evokes the persecution of local witches by King James VI. Ron Butlin’s five short short stories were originally published in the Herald and present ironic comments on aspects of modern life. Whereas John Grant’s story brilliantly shifts the ballad theme of a mortal man’s encounter with the realm of Faerie, as in ‘True Thomas’ or ‘Tam Lin’, into the experiences of a disabled American Iraq War veteran during his visit to Scot-land, accompanied by his mysterious wife Tania. All these stories, and others, are very satisfying, yet the very act of describing and praising them, begins to raise issues that cut to the very heart of Nova Scotia and its proclaimed intention as an anthology of new Scottish short fiction.

A brief look at the other stories included in the collection, considering their themes and styles, may clarify the point. Deborah Miller’s ‘Vanilla for the Lady’, Stefan Pear-son’s ‘The Bogle’s Bargain’ and Charles Stross’s ‘Snowball’s Chance’, all to differing degrees, sometimes with a nod in the direction of conventional SF, revisit the popular Scottish theme of demonic visitation. Hal Duncan’s ‘The Last Shift’ treats Scottish working-class life in an alternative Paisley. Parody and pastiche are represented by A.J. McIntosh’s Boswell and Johnson episode, ‘Not Wisely But Too Well’, with its extra Shakespearean interlude, and by the alternative Holmesian detective story, Michael Cobley’s ‘The Intrigue of the Battered Box’. There are overtly humorous pieces (‘Sophie and the Sacred Fluids’, ‘Pisces Ya Bas’, ‘Total Mental Quality, by the Way’, and Matthew Fitt’s ‘Criggie’), some in a specifically Scottish idiom. And there is allegorical morality, suggestive of Neil Gunn’s The Green Isle of the Great Deep in ‘Running On at Adventures’ by Angus McAllister, and exploring Glasgow social division in ‘The Vulture, 4-17 March’. What we have in the bulk of the stories in Nova Scotia is treatment, often in interesting new formats and contexts, of the traditional subjects and concerns of Scottish fiction. It is certainly new Scottish fiction; it is, however, for the most part definitely not speculative fiction.

The editors, to a degree, recognise this in their preface, saying that Nova Scotia continues the imaginative strand of Scottish storytelling with its diversity in these original stories. However, both the publishers, with their stress on the ideas of ‘speculative’ fiction and science fiction, and Neil Pringle in his Introduction, saying that most of the stories are science fiction, are guilty of misleading the unwary reader. Only a small minority of the Nova Scotia stories are really science fiction. Ken MacLeod’s ‘A Case of Consilience’, Hannu Rajaniemi’s ‘Deus ex Homine’, Neil Williamson’s ‘The Bennie and the Bonobo’ and Jack Deighton’s ‘Dusk’ are the only stories that truly fulfil the criteria of science fiction; they are very thought-provoking stories that stand at the hard speculative end of the spectrum that ranges from major SF landmarks such as (using Scottish examples) Iain Banks’ recent The Algebraist and his ‘Culture’ novels and Ken MacLeod’s The Fall Revolution and Engines of Light sequences all the way down to the mush of Star Trek and Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the interminable Swords and Sorcery fakery, as found on the ineptly entitled ‘SciFi/Fantasy’ shelves in the chain bookstores. All too often, it seems, science fiction is judged by the latter end of the spectrum, as wish-fulfilment fantasies rather than as the scientifically-underpinned products of a creative intellect. Nova Scotia is a fine anthology with a predominance of well-conceived imaginative fantasy using traditional Scottish subjects; a genuinely speculative element is not its main feature.

For a new example of genuine Scottish speculative fiction, we can turn immediately to Ken MacLeod’s new novel, Learning the World, the latest in what is building up to be a truly major body of individual achievement in the science fiction genre. Described as novel of first contact, that is, the first encounter between humanity and non-humanity, Learning the World employs some familiar devices: the great ship bearing the human colonising population through many generations on their way to a new star system; the ‘aliens’ and their civilisation conceived in human terms to render them sympathetic to the reader; the twin narratives intercutting between ship and alien planet in a structure familiar to fans of Ken MacLeod from his earlier novels.

This is not a fiction on a scale equal to the universes of The Fall Revolution and Engines of Light, or even of his stand-alone novel, Newton’s  Wake. It does not have the familiar points of reference of these works, like the Earth we know, Scot-land, even Glasgow and the West Highlands, but with its use of popular space opera contexts and character types, it is an accessible and enjoyable read. More than that, it is an acute analysis of the problems that arise between coloniser and colonised, between races of very different values and types of civilisation, between human as alien and alien as human. To that extent, it is, like all of MacLeod’s work, a profoundly political book.

NOVA SCOTIA: NEW SCOTTISH SPECULATIVE FICTION,
edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J.Wilson
Crescent Books, £9.99
ISBN 184183 0860

LEARNING THE WORLD, by Ken MacLeod,
Orbit Books, £17.99
ISBN 1 84149 343 0

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