Exploring Ireland's forgotten tradition of science-fiction writing
A Brilliant Void
Edited by Jack Fennell
Tramp Press, paperback, 256 pages, €15
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'