Friday 20 September 2019

To boldly go in search of Irish sci-fi

From creating forerunners of the Bond villain to a Gaelgeoir space-pilot, we have a long history in science fiction, but are our efforts distinctive or just sci-fi with an Irish accent, asks Jack Fennell

Stellar fiction: When Ireland's fortunes are on the rise, our sci-fi adventures have often looked beyond this world
Stellar fiction: When Ireland's fortunes are on the rise, our sci-fi adventures have often looked beyond this world

The popularity of sci-fi in Ireland is indisputable, as demonstrated by the fact that the World Science Fiction Convention - the biggest annual event of its kind, with the Hugo Awards ceremony as its central attraction - will be coming to Dublin in 2019. Aside from generous tax incentives, our fondness for the genre is probably a contributing factor as to why many sci-fi epics are filmed here, from the recent Star Wars films' scenes on Skellig Michael to the post-apocalyptic TV series Into the Badlands, and the forthcoming sci-fi/horror series Nightflyers.

But does Ireland have any sci-fi of its own? If by 'science fiction' we mean fiction that extrapolates the impact of science on society, then yes - Ireland has that by the bucketload. Lord Dunsany's The Last Revolution (1951) depicted a gruesome uprising by intelligent machines; Seosamh Ó Torna pondered how industrialisation would impact Irish life in short stories such as 'Duinneall' and 'Ceithre Bhuille an Chloig' (both from 1938), and George Bernard Shaw used hypothetical medical advances to sketch out a future history stretching all the way to the year 31,920 in Back to Methuselah (1921).

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However, if we're talking about 'authenticity,' the issue gets a little trickier. It's all well and good to point to examples of Irish authors doing this kind of thing, but does that alone make the work 'Irish'? A similar argument could be had over Nashville-style country music by Irish artists - is there anything 'authentically Irish' about it, or is it just imitation with a vaguely Irish accent? There is, of course, no such thing as a distinctive 'Irish science,' so how can there be a distinctive Irish science fiction? For over 10 years, I have been gathering together novels and short stories that prove such a thing exists. Over the past 12 months, I have been editing a selection of that material into an anthology of Irish sci-fi that I think will surprise many readers. Among its many surprises are the facts that it started far further back than we might think, and that many of its finest practitioners were women.

In the 1850s, Fitz James O'Brien was writing about sub-atomic universes (The Diamond Lens) and invisible predators (What Was It?); in 1877, Frances Power Cobbe created a dystopian, technocratic society with intelligent apes as domestic servants (The Age of Science); from the 1870s to the 1900s, a slew of mostly anonymous authors produced breathless accounts of terrible future wars every time a new Home Rule bill was debated; LT Meade (Elizabeth Smith) and Robert Cromie created the forerunners of the Bond villain in their respective works, in which secret societies use mad science to criminal ends. There are scores of examples, and in each one we can find ideas that would later become mass-media staples. But what do they say about Ireland?

One noticeable trend is that when times are tough for the country, Irish sci-fi heroes are insecure and prone to indecisiveness and hesitation. However, when Ireland's fortunes are on the rise, these protagonists start to become confident and assertive, and their adventures start to look like American sci-fi stories: see, for example, Cathal Ó Sándair's intrepid Gaelgeoir space-pilot, Captaen Spéirling, who flies around the solar system toppling dictatorships, freeing slaves and establishing trade relations between Ireland and various extra-terrestrial peoples. These stories obviously reflect the economic optimism of the Lemass era, and the start of Ireland's military contribution to UN peacekeeping missions. We were making our mark in the world and contributing to that world's stability, so why should we let the English and the Americans have all the fun of flying around in outer space?

After the optimism of the 1960s came an economic recession, and with it, a steady stream of dystopian literature - such as Sam Baneham's The Cloud of Desolation (1982) and Mícheál Ó Brolacháin's Pax Dei (1985), to name just two. Up to the early 1990s, many of these works seem to follow a similar pattern: an inhabitant of an urban hell-hole starts to notice inconsistencies in the regime's ideology, asks awkward questions, and is forced to escape into an external 'real world,' which is nearly always wholesome and rural. This pattern can be found in sci-fi from all over the world, but when we read these stories in their specific Irish context, we can see that they are addressing painful questions about the cost of entering the world of tomorrow. What did we sacrifice to become modern? Did we lose a vital part of ourselves in the process?

When the next upswing came, most of that painful soul-searching went away, and Irish sci-fi once again started to imitate action-adventure stories from elsewhere. This time, it was the turn of cyberpunk, which by the 1990s was already starting to verge on self-parody. By the time we started writing it, there was a list of identifiable cyberpunk clichés: Asian (usually Japanese) cultural artefacts used as set-dressing; hackers as freedom fighters; cybernetic implants, film noir moods and plots. Irish writers typically tried to put their own spin on these tropes, but this often amounted to nothing more than the novelty of putting these things into an Irish setting. These stories appeared as we became ever-more dependent on foreign investment, especially from the multinationals that established technological 'enclaves' here during the 1990s, and they indicate that we had stopped imagining ourselves as equal partners in the modern world; the future would be invented somewhere else, and then imported.

Having staggered through the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, however, it seems that we no longer trust the pre-packaged futures we bought into before. The confidence of the boom years is increasingly combined with the wariness and self-reflection of the hard times, with writers such as Sarah Maria Griffin (with Spare and Found Parts) and Oisín Fagan (with Hostages) crafting brainy fables that scrutinise Ireland's place in the modern world. Like the Gaelic bards of old, our sci-fi writers now tell uncomfortable truths in an engaging form: not only does Irish sci-fi exist, it's quickly becoming the expression of our national conscience.

'A Brilliant Void - A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction' edited by Jack Fennell and published by Tramp Press will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on Saturday, November 17 at 6.30pm in the Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin 8

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