Thursday 20 June 2019

Navigating the warped course of Emerald sci-fi

Fiction: A Brilliant Void, Edited by Jack Fennell, Tramp Press, €15.00

William Maginn's 'The New Frankenstein' taps into on old favourite
William Maginn's 'The New Frankenstein' taps into on old favourite

Hilary A White

The popularity and long history of science-fiction in Ireland is indisputable, writes Hilary A White

A cursory glance at the Gothic tradition provides strong arguments for its role as a forerunner of science fiction. Mad scientists (Frankenstein), unorthodox medicine (Dracula) and other perversions of the natural course would become the staple ingredients of science fiction before the gaze was turned to the heavens and the limitless possibilities that they offered. Mix together these tropes with HG Wells and Jules Verne and you get 20th Century sci-fi.

In Ireland, as editor Jack Fennell details in his introduction to A Brilliant Void, sci-fi has always endured, even if much of the literary establishment look down its nose at this warped genre. Look right back to the Tuatha De Danann to find the Skywalker paternity crisis, Fennell says, along with laser vision and metal prosthesis.

Fennell's task in compiling this chronological (1837-1960) Hibernian sci-fi reader is to set out his argument; while critics may have considered it marginalia, the Irish have always had a knack for science fiction due to our affinity for aisling poetry, the weirder ends of Beckett and Flann O'Brien etc, and the Gothic.

On the face of it, the most modern entry here - Cathal O Sandair's The Exile - can seem to be the most pithy, pulpy and provincial of the lot, telling as it does of a Kerryman living on a lunar colony who comes to miss the clammy cold of Killarney. While effective use is made of the emigration metaphor, there is a very Irish punchline to it that is a little glib.

Elsewhere, before spaceships and lunar longing, we see some majorly fascinating work revived.

Buttevant's Clotilde Graves is one of eight women writers featured in these 15 tales. Her 1917 short story The Great Beast of Kafue is a gilded piece of exotic romance about a Dutch frontiersman seeking out a Jurassic relic still living in the jungle of deepest, darkest Rhodesia.

A century later, its Conrad-esque themes of predation and holy-grail ravaging chime loudly. The earliest instalment is that of William Maginn's The New Frankenstein, a bizarre item (oddness, Fennell freely admits, can be a hallmark of attractive sci-fi) that features one of many mad scientists here. As if ignoring the details of Shelley's original, Maginn's boffin is out to create a monster with intellect.

A principal function is to hypothesise and simulate, to test ourselves against situations that might explain society better. Looking back at these works from today's vantage point, however, they allow us to retrospectively see what our ancestors imagined for their futures.

Take The Chronotron, Tarlach O hUid's 1946 time-travel headache, where political motives and over-leaping scientific achievement cause a rift in the continuum when applied to the Anglo-Irish War. The same territory is encountered in A Story Without An End, Dorothy McArdle's riff on Civil War dream-visions that, again, sees the otherworld being dragged into the confusion and pain of a fraught context (McArdle wrote it in Mountjoy in 1922 while imprisoned for Anti-Treaty activities).

In The Sorcerer (1922), meanwhile, Charlotte McManus, another Anti-Treaty soldier, takes the back-lanes magic of ancient Ireland and smashes it against the fierce enquiry of the scientific age to see if they can co-exist.

There is, unsurprisingly, a flurry of activity on the eve of the 20th Century, as philosophy, god and science underwent staggering social shifts. This leads us to more bending of medical ethics in The Professor's Experiment (1895) by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, while Jane Barlow's An Advance Sheet (1898) wanders into a kaleidoscope of alternate dimensions via a lunatic asylum.

Less the final word on Emerald sci-fi than a historical argument for its continuation and advancement, this is more worthwhile, left-of-centre publishing by Tramp Press.

Sunday Independent

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