Thursday 13 December 2018

Exploring Ireland's forgotten tradition of science-fiction writing

Science-Fiction

A Brilliant Void

Edited by Jack Fennell 

Tramp Press, paperback, 256 pages, €15

Exemplary introduction: Editor Jack Fennell
Exemplary introduction: Editor Jack Fennell
A Brilliant Void, edited by Jack Fennell
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It's amazing to think that independent publisher Tramp Press was only established in 2014. During this short but brilliant existence, they've published several groundbreaking, daring books in fiction and non-fiction: by Sara Baume, Mike McCormack, Joanna Walsh and Emilie Pine, among others.

Tramp has also produced two short-form collections, and in that vein, they now bring us something completely different: a selection of Irish science-fiction stories from the 1830s to 1960s. Not just different in that this is, I think, their first foray into the genre; but also, as editor Jack Fennell points out in his introduction, most of us "would be hard-pressed to name an Irish sci-fi writer".

It's not a field our authors have ever been associated with. Literary fiction, yes, alongside poetry, drama, crime, horror (especially Gothic) and humour - but not science fiction.

This remains true today; Hibernian versions of JG Ballard or William Gibson are basically non-existent. But in the past, Fennell argues, this country actually had a strong tradition of sci-fi: if you expand your definition of the genre a little, and accept that it shares borders with others, such as horror and Lovecraft-style "weird fiction".

So here, for instance, he includes 'Mad Scientist' stories like William Maginn's 'The New Frankenstein' and 'The Professor's Experiment' by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, monster-horror 'The Great Beast of Kafue' (Clotilde Graves) and Charlotte McManus's 'The Sorcerer', with its ambiguous blend of science and magic. Meanwhile, in 'The Diamond Lens' by Fitz-James O'Brien, one man's obsession with microscopes spirals off into a fantastical tale of humanoid creatures, miniature replicas of us, somehow existing inside a single raindrop.

Whether you consider this to be a bit of a cheat on Fennell's part, or an acceptable tweak, depends I suppose on how much of a sci-fi literalist you are. For me, these stories are as close to fantasy as they are to science fiction.

There's a supernatural or mystical undertone; events are often unexplained and aren't always plausible within the physical laws of the universe as we know it. In the end, a higher suspension of disbelief is required. Indeed, referencing Frankenstein again, I also consider Mary Shelley's great novel to be more of a supernatural, or perhaps preternatural, horror than proper sci-fi.

But that's maybe being overly pedantic. For one thing, these are all fine, entertaining tales. More importantly, many of the central themes and narrative staples of sci-fi are impossible anyway: time travel, interstellar exploration and so on. They make for cool stories but, in reality, they're as absurd as any Cthulhu.

The book also has plenty of "straight" sci-fi, for those of a more militant aesthetic. Frances Power Cobbe's 'The Age of Science', for instance, is a witty, clever and oddly modern-feeling (it was written in 1877) satire, told through a 1977 newspaper retrieved by some intertemporal wizardry, about how science would come to dominate all life, as dogmatic and self-regarding as any theocracy.

Meanwhile 'Mercia, the Astronomer Royal' (Amelia Garland Mears) could be an excerpt from Iain M Bank's Culture series.

Fennell's exemplary introduction draws interesting connections between sci-fi and Ireland's literary heritage, right back to mythology, "aisling" dream-poetry and early Christian "fantasy-voyage epics" called immrama. It's a fascinating set-up for a thoroughly enjoyable collection, which itself is another feather in Tramp's well-plumed cap.

Darragh McManus's novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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