A Review of “Warriors & Warlocks: Chapter 1 – Outcast” by Monther Alkabbani.

One of the nicest bits of the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, was stumbling upon the Yatakhayaloon table in the Dealers’ Room. Yatakhayaloon is the League of Arabic SciFiers, and they’ve published a few works of speculative fiction in translation.  Always on the lookout for something out of the ordinary, I struck up a conversation with the splendidly attired gentleman who was at the table, and got him to tell me a little about the four or five titles on offer.  As a result, I quickly relieved him of a copy of Monther Alkabbani’s Outcast: the opening volume of the Warriors & Warlocks trilogy – for who can resist an historical fantasy about the Mongols.

The book well satisfied my hopes of being something apart from the crowd.  In one way, this might be, as singled-out in translator Tim Gregory’s afterword, due to differences in the style of storytelling, but it goes deeper.  A core part of the book sees the dissection of sharia law and verses of the Koran, to furnish logical escape routes from the theocratic intrigues of the plotters.  At times I almost felt as though I was reading Rumi’s Masnavi. And the book throws up some intriguing dogmas: firstly, it rails against the subjugation of the people by their rulers and religion.  Secondly, it highlights the idea of Allah furnishing mankind with the tools of science, so as to facilitate our understanding of the universe and Allah’s place within it.

I’m sure that second theme will have a large part to play in the remaining volumes, for Outcast is not the simple historical fantasy I anticipated.  On one level it takes its place in that long line of tales begun with the likes of A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar, or L. Ron Hubbard’s masterful Slaves of Sleep, wherein a modern day protagonist is translocated in place and time.  In Outcast‘s case, this is plastic surgeon Murad Qutuz who, when hurled off a Riyadh skyscraper by the minions of villainous American polymath Virginia Tabt, finds himself, instead of splattered on the ground, in a caravan of Mongols and merchants taking Genghis Khan’s grand-daughter Yasimi to Bukhara, where her marriage is to cement an alliance with the Khwarezmians. The Khwarezmian court, it transpires, is a nest of vipers, where the family members will stop at nothing to pursue their own advantage.

But Alkabbani adds some nice riffs.  Firstly Murad is only visible to one other person, the ‘Warlock’ Abdel-Rahman: and secondly, by that time Murad has already travelled between two different lives of his own in parallel Riyadhs, a feat that draws him to the attention of the Elizabeth Holmes-like Tabt, who clearly pursues the same power.  What’s really going on is left totally murky.  Tabt presumably knows. Abdel-Rahman, apparently a man of Murad’s own time, knows, but isn’t saying, and so does some other monstrous entity, that materialises at a couple of critical points in the narrative, but it isn’t saying either.  Outcast ends with the resolution of the immediate geopolitical machinations of the Khwarezmians, but little else.  I can’t wait for volume two.

Outcast is not perfect.  It wants for a stronger emotional core.   Murad, outside of the Riyadh storyline at least, is too isolated and adrift, Abdel-Rahman is too cryptic and neither Yasimi, her mother-in-law — the Emira Nouran Khatoun — nor Abdel-Rahman’s sidekick, young religious scholar Mohamed Attousi, are at centre stage often enough to carry the weight.  It seems as though these five will form the focus of the second book, though, which is all to the narrative good.

 

 

 

Unravelling the Vsevolod Ivanovs

I’ve been a long-time fan of the fantastical, slavic-themed paintings of Vsevolod Ivanov.  For those who don’t know his work, there’s a gorgeous five-minute video showcasing some of it here.  Some of my fiction has been inspired by them.  Hukka, my short story about a pilgrim searching for Zlata Baba – The Golden Woman of the Ugra – came into being after I was suitably dazzled by Ivanov’s landscape The Sacred Lake of the Siversky Mountains.  In this panorama, a sacred site above a frozen lake, is overtopped by a huge firebird steeple, while in the distance, a walled city nestles under the crags of impossibly spiky mountains.  Another of Ivanov’s landscapes, The Revelation of the Goddess, has featured as a location in several of my stories of the Seaside People (ie; Pomors).

Very recently, I’ve discovered the fantastical fiction of Vsevolod Ivanov, and I initially assumed, based on some commonality of theme, that they must be the same person.  It quickly became clear, upon closer scrutiny, that they are not.

Vsevolod Borisovich Ivanov (b. 1950), the artist, stems from Belomorsk on the south-western shore of the White Sea.  He graduated from the Tver art school in 1978 and is still alive and working.

I have a passing acquaintance with Belomorsk.  I spent a night there once, a few years back, before making the crossing, by boat, to Solovki.  Whatever the present-day issues challenging every Soviet-era town, the surroundings of Belomorsk are peaceful and the light is ethereal.  Prehistoric, animal-form petroglyphs decorate some of the local caves.

Belomorsk is not so far from the magical Onega Bay, where another very fine scientist-turned-artist, St. Petersburg’s Anna Mikhaylova, has set several of her surreal, petroglyph-inhabited landscapes.  Here’s one with swans, the original of which now proudly adorns my living-room wall, thanks to my happening upon an exhibition of hers at Gostiny Dvor, while I was sojourning in Arkhangelsk.

Vsevolod Vyacheslavovich Ivanov (1895 – 1963), the writer, was born in Lebyazhye, in what is now Kazakhstan.  He wrote adventure and fantastical stories set in Soviet Central Asia.  His first big hit was Armoured Train 14-69 (1922), a tale of derring-do set during the Russian civil war (in which he fought, having earlier run away from home as a teenager, to become a clown in a circus).  I first discovered V.V. Ivanov through another of his civil war adventure stories, The  Desert of Toub-Koy. Now an English translation of Armoured Train is winging its way to me as I write, courtesy of the nice people at AbeBooks.

V.V. Ivanov was one of the founders of the Serapion Fraternity writing group, in St. Petersburg in 1921.  There he was mentored by dissident firebrand Yevgeny Zamyatin, who espoused the doctrine “True literature can be created only by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.”

Zamyatin was a fabulously interesting character in his own right.  He had written The Islanders (1918), a satire on the English, while working as a naval architect, constructing icebreakers, on Tyneside.  He then returned to Russia, but his famous, anti-Soviet dystopian novel We, was smuggled to the United States, and first published there in 1924.  He was exiled by Stalin in 1931, and died in poverty in Paris, six years later.

It’s pretty clear that V.V. Ivanov took Zamyatin’s doctrine to heart.  His fiction is shot-through with the occult lore of the deserts and steppes, whether lurking in the background of his adventure stories, or overtly as in tales like The Copper Lamp, The Opaline Ribbon and his picaresque semi-autobiographical novel The Adventures of a Fakir (1935).  A good introductory collection of his work, Fertility, and Other Stories, was published by Northwestern University Press, in 1998.

As a postscript I might mention V.V. Ivanov’s son, Vyacheslav Ivanov, an eminent Indo-European philologist, who became a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Program of Indo-European Studies at UCLA.  He taught there in the period 1991-2015, and among the courses he offered was one on Russian Science fiction – a summary of which is here.

In Praise of ‘Crimson Sails’

Those who know me, know of my love for those imagined lands that nestle within our real world, places exemplified by ‘Ruritania’, the setting for Anthony Hope’s dazzling The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and its mundane sequel Rupert of Hentzau (1898).  Other examples include George Barr McCutcheon’s ‘Graustark,’ Leonard Wibberley’s ‘Grand Fenwick’ and of course my own invention: ‘The Principality,’ dominated by the eponymous castle of the ruling family, ‘The Green Redoubt.’

The Science Fiction Encyclopaedia (SFE) summarises the essential qualities of such places:-

  • They must provide a fairy-tale enclave (or polder), located both within and beyond normal civilisation;
  • They must be infused by an air of nostalgia.

Which, by a roundabout route, brings me to probably the greatest fantasy writer that Russia has ever produced – Aleksandr Stepanovich Grinevsky a.k.a. Alexander Grin (1880 – 1932).  Of course, one should qualify such a claim.  The greatest Russian fantasy work of all is unquestionably Pushkin’s Russlan and Ludmila (1820), which is heavily rooted in Russian folklore.  But for original fantasy, Grin, for me, takes the gong.

One might ask, well where are all the Russian fantasy writers of modern times?  Of course there are a few, but even the best (the genre-king Sergei Lukyanenko and the more literary Victor Pelevin spring to mind), are still building their reputation – it would seem that the fall of the Soviet Union, almost thirty years ago now, kick-started a lot of careers.  I can imagine that fantasy writing of the kind that was blossoming in the west by the mid-twentieth century, would not have been one of the Soviet era’s most favoured art forms.

So what about Grin? From the beginning of this article you might guess that his works are located in an imagined land, and you’d be right.  But Grin, regrettably, at least from a modern marketing point of view, never gave a name to the homeland of his cities of Liss, Kaperna and Zurbagan.  Grin aficionados, of which I am now firmly one, refer to it affectionately as ‘Grinland’ or ‘Grinlandia.’

The first thing you notice about Grin, when you start to pull together material for an article, is just how huge a following he has in many other countries.  The number of German editions of his works, for example, is staggering.  But so far as I can tell, the one significant English translation of Grin is the collection from Progress Publishers The Seeker of Adventure (1978), which includes two of Grin’s most celebrated novellas Fandango and Crimson Sails.  It appears that none of his longer works (The Glittering World and The Golden Chain, to name but two) have been translated into English.

I’ve just read Crimson Sails.  It’s a truly wonderful story, of the type that is probably the most difficult of all for a writer to pull off successfully.  It’s an unabashed feelgood tale: the joyful ending telegraphed almost from the beginning, the reader deriving his or her entertainment from the journey, rather than the suspense of the uncertainty.  Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy.

Assol, the young daughter of shunned toy maker Longren, encounters an enigmatic storyteller in the woods, while chasing along the riverbank after her crimson-sailed toy boat.  He predicts her future.  Meanwhile, a world away, Arthur Grey, the unworldly son of minor nobility, runs away to sea.  Both are delightfully quirky characters: the former ending each day with the curt prayer ‘Goodnight God’; the latter with a habit of daubing the nail wounds on crucifixes with blue paint, to cover up the pain.

Grin doesn’t fall into the trap of over-egging the privations of Assol and her father, nor of over demonising the venal Menners family (for we all know where the story is heading), and he punctuates the action with some satisfyingly deep philosophical musings. 

The early scene where Longren watches as Menners senior is swept away, without going to his aid, is brilliantly conceived.  Longren is ostracised by the community afterwards, not for his inaction, but because he looked on in cold-blooded silence as the man responsible for his wife’s death is taken by the sea, rather than having the ‘normal’ reaction of crowing and jeering at him.

And in the end, the story goes just where it should and Grin, knowing full well that you shouldn’t overstay your welcome in such situations, completes the tale with satisfying economy and you put the book down with a smile on your face and a tear in your eye.  And when you pick the book up again later to thumb through it, you notice that Crimson Sails comes with its own particular dedication: Presented and dedicated to Nina Nikolayevna Grin by the AUTHOR, Petrograd, Nov. 23rd, 1922.

Update: 08/10/2019

It’s often the case with works in translation, that they can collect, over time, more than one name, depending on the inclination of the translator.  Thus, I now discover that Crimson Sails has also often been known as Scarlet Sails, and if I research the work under that name, I get a much clearer picture of its enduring popularity in Russia.  In 1942, for example, a ballet version was created by little-known composer Vladimir Yurovsky.  It was staged at the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of the USSR in December 1943.

In St. Petersburg, Scarlet Sails has become the centrepiece of the annual White Nights summer celebrations.  The tradition dates from 1968, when the first show was put on there (in then Leningrad) by schoolchildren celebrating the end of the school year.  Scarlet Sails was deemed apt for two reasons.  In the first place, Grin was regarded at the time as a children’s author, because he included fantasy in his works.  He isn’t of course, though it is fair to say that much of his output can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.  Several other writers of the era had a similar fate – M.M. Prishvin, for example, who wove folklore into his nature stories. And secondly, Scarlet Sails had become associated with St. Petersburg, because an earlier draft of the work, penned before Grin conceived Grinland, was set there (in then Petrograd).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Review of Justin Huntly McCarthy’s “The Dryad”.

One suspects that there are few historical fantasy novels set in the fourteenth century Duchy of Athens, but this is not the most surprising thing about Justin Huntly McCarthy’s accomplished and engaging work, The Dryad. First of all, though written by an Irishman, and with a publication date (1905) at the height of the Celtic Revival, there is not a single Celtic allusion anywhere in the book. Secondly, and even more intriguing, is the great principal character that McCarthy conjures up: the eponymous heroine, the immortal Argathona – one third Wonder Woman, one third Arwen Undómiel, yet pre-dating either by three decades, give or take, and one third Lyanna Stark – it just goes to show that there truly is nothing new under the sun.

McCarthy’s plot is simple and the execution is tight, right down to the tying up of the comic relief loose ends – represented by the robbers Fox and Gander and their chums – in the penultimate act. Shakespeare would have applauded. It’s the beginning of the fourteenth century and Greece is heaving with french noblemen, not least the pure Rainouart, who has left the court of Philip the Fair to attempt a reconciliation with his father, Duke Baldwin of Athens. Waylaid by robbers in a wood, Rainouart is saved by Argathona with the reluctant assistance of big mercenary Simon of Rouen. Here’s an excerpt from Argathona’s first encounter with Simon:-

“Welcome or no welcome,” he cried, “I mean to clip you in my arms. The forest is silent, you are my prize, you shall follow your mother’s example.” He made a step towards the girl as he spoke, with his face as red as a peony, and stretched out his big brown hands to seize her white body. To his surprise, she made no effort to evade him, and for one wild moment it was a pleasure to clasp her soft body close to his; but before he had time to turn his clasp into an embrace he found himself, to his bewilderment, plucked from the ground as if he had been caught in the clutch of a whirlwind, and then in another astonishing instant he realised that the maiden had flung him from her as if his mighty mass of manhood had been no bulkier than a cradled doll, and that he was travelling rapidly through the air towards his mother earth. Then he countered the ground with a prodigious thump that seemed to squelch the breath out of his lungs and to shake every bone and strain every sinew of his body. Sick and dizzy and all of an ache he lay on his back on the grass, rigid as a man in a catalepsy, and staring in unfamiliar terror at the maiden, whose beautiful face was suddenly fierce with anger.

“You fool,” she cried, “learn that I rule in this forest. I have dealt thus gently with you for this once” – Simon groaned inwardly as she said this, and wondered if he had a whole bone left in his body – “but if you vex me again I shall be tempted to do you some hurt.”

Simon made an effort to move, and the effort hurt him sorely, and he marvelled at the girl’s ideas of gentleness and hurting.

Of course it’s love at first sight for Argathona and Rainouart. But the potions of the evil Esclaramonde, Duchess of Thebes soon come between them, and the Duchess whisks the bewitched Rainouart off to Athens. Argathona, disguised as the “Prince of Eleusis”, and Simon, set off in pursuit, to break the spell and rescue Rainouart, before the Duchess can marry him.

The story concludes with the capture of the Duchy of Athens by the Catalan Grand Company of mercenaries (which indeed did occur in 1311), while, at the same time, somewhere in the woods, The fugitive Duchess is getting her come-uppance with the robbers, and Rainouart and Argathona are having their Aragorn and Arwen moment, as she renounces immortality and the classical gods, becomes a Christian and weds him.

The book is of its time in places – the romance can get a tad syrupy, and I could have done without all the preachy sermonising before Argathona’s conversion – though I have no issue with the ending per se: it’s entirely logical within the context of the story and satisfying enough for that. Of the characters, Argathona is fabulous, Duke Baldwin is a Robert Baratheon, and Simon is very Bronn. Esclaramonde and Rainouart are less well drawn: the latter in particular, after a good introduction, has little to do except look pretty and get wounded a lot. But overall, The Dryad is very nicely done and a lot of fun – a forgotten work that is worth anyone’s while to rediscover.

Irish Revolution in Speculative Fiction, 1875 – 1945: Dublin 2019, Sunday August 18th, 12:00.

Welcome everyone.  My name’s Nick Larter.  What follows in the next 45 minutes will be a personal survey of the topic it’s not intended to be an exhaustive one.  I’m going to focus on some of the books and people who have interested me.

This talk is in three parts.  Firstly I’ll look at some fiction that was written in the mid-to-late 19th century: the Fenian period one might say, then I’ll discuss the very different fates of four of the nationalists who were caught up in the turbulent period between 1916 and 1923.  In part two I’ll look briefly at three of them: Darrell Figgis, Ella Young and James Stephens.  In part three, I’ll look in more detail at Francis Stuart, one of my favourite writers and one of the most complex characters from the period.

I’m not making a full PowerPoint presentation.  I’ll talk from my script, and I’ll read you a few excerpts from some of the works I’ll mention and from some of the biographies that have been written about the people in question.  But I do have a few pictures of the people I’m going to talk about, as it’s nice to be able to put face to name.

The script of this talk is now available on my blog.

-oOo-

I don’t have time to tell a detailed history of Ireland from the late 19th to early 20th century, but for anyone unfamiliar with it, I’ll give you a few quick pointers to hang on to:-

In the mid-19th century, various Fenian (Fianna – soldiers of Irish legend) organisations sought to restore Irish independence from the UK, through revolution.  By the 1880’s their influence was waning, partly due to the good prospects at Westminster for an Irish home rule bill.  But though passed in the Commons, this bill was scotched by the House of Lords.

In the decades that followed, the nationalist politicking was underpinned by a vibrant rediscovery of Irish culture – a loose association of movements in literature, theatre and so forth, collectively known as the Celtic Revival.  The political importance was that by bringing to the fore and celebrating Irish cultural difference, one strengthened the arguments for breaking from the UK.  For a period, any would-be nationalist politician who wanted to get on, had to have a volume of folktales or something similar on his or her resumé as a calling card.

In 1916 the Easter Rising occurred.  It was not much supported by the Irish people at the time, but that soon changed on foot of the witless and heavy handed way the aftermath was handled by the British.

As a result, the War of Independence occurred from 1919-21 and following the treaty, in December 1921, partition occurred.  A Civil War then ran on between pro and anti treaty forces until 1923, when the anti-treaty forces surrendered.  Under the terms of partition, Ireland became a free state, still technically under British legislation until the statue of Westminster in 1931. Ireland remained a free state until 1937, at which point the constitution was ratified, Douglas Hyde becoming the first president of the new Republic, in 1938.

-oOo-

So let’s go back to 1875 and some engineering history.  John Holland, born in Liscannor Co. Clare in 1840 submitted his first submarine plans to the US Navy in 1875.  They were rejected.  Holland continued to work on his submarines under the funding of the Fenian movement.  In 1881, the Fenian Ram was completed.  To this day, the submarine remains the only major weapons system to have been initially developed outside of a state’s military industrial machinery.

Shortly after delivering the Ram, Holland fell out with the Fenians in a dispute over money, but the US was finally taking notice.  As a result, The Electric Boat Company was founded by Isaac Rice in 1899 to build Holland’s designs for the US Navy.  The company still exists today as General Dynamics Electric Boat.

-oOo-

Which brings us, in a roundabout way to Tom Greer, an Irish surgeon, living in England, who in 1885 wrote his science fiction novel, A Modern Daedalus.

Greer’s opening words are as follows:-

Excerpt

-oOo-

In the book, Greer’s protagonist Jack O’Halloran, like a steampunk Tony Stark, builds a flying suit.  After flirtations with selling out to the British military, nationalism takes over, flying suited republicans defeat the British, and Ireland is freed.

There’s no direct evidence that Greer knew of Holland’s endeavours, but they are implied by his opening words and the circumstantial evidence, the novel appearing four years after the Fenian Ram, is compelling.  For a long time I wondered if I was the only person to have made the connection, but I was very pleased to see that Jack Fennell independently made the same leap in his book on Irish SF.

In this excerpt, Jack O’Halloran is in negotiations with the British Home Secretary:-

Excerpt

-oOo-

OK, so let’s move on to the period 1916 – 23.

Darrell Figgis was typical of the young Irish idealists of the early 20th century.  A dandy from the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Rathmines, he moved west, learnt Irish and produced his calling card: in his case, not a volume of Celtic folklore, but rather, a biography of George Russell.

Russell, often known by his occult name of AE, was one of the titans of the Celtic Revival.  He was well known for going out and communing with the fairy folk in the hills of Connacht, a habit that was immortalised in the tone poem In the Faery Hills by Anglo-Irish composer Sir Arnold Bax, who once took up Russell’s invitation to accompany him.

So writing that work unlocked all the right doors for Darrell and come 1914, we find him running guns.  As a result he’s in jail during the Easter Rising itself, but in the years after, he’s a prominent figure interpreting Pearse’s manifesto for the masses, paving the way for the War of Independence.

At some point however, he falls out with the IRA and in response pens a satirical fantasy novel The Return of the Hero set in classical times, lampooning the IRA leadership.

Humiliated in public when his enemies send a gang after him to shave off half his beard, he moves to London in the early nineteen-twenties.  Disillusioned, he commits suicide there, in 1924.

-oOo-

Ella Young was a protégé of George Russell – she was one of his ‘singing birds.’  Through this relationship she became friends with Padraig Pearse and the darling of nationalism and muse of W.B. Yeats, Maud Gonne.

Both impacted Young’s life in the decades ahead. Gonne illustrated Young’s two volumes of ‘Celtic Wonder Tales’ for children, published in 1909 and 1910.  In the case of Pearse, the friendship led to Young playing an active role smuggling guns and ammunition to nationalist forces over a period of nearly 20 years.

Her Biographer, Rose Murphy writes:-

Excerpt

In the late 1920’s Ella Young emigrated to the United States.  There, she wrote more volumes of Celtic legend retold for children and an original Celtic fantasy novel, The Unicorn with Silver Shoes, illus. Robert Lawson (1932)

She held a chair in Irish Myth and Lore at the University of California, Berkeley for seven years and died in retirement at Oceano in California in 1956.

-oOo-

By the time of the Easter Rising James Stephens, a protestant and staunch nationalist had, as his contribution to the literary revival, produced a volume of Irish fairytales and two fairy-related novels: The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914).  He was not directly involved in the Easter Rising, but kept a diary of it.  Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt

What that excerpt demonstrates is how high up in the nationalist circles Stephens moved at the time.  By the time of the Rising, Stephens had become acknowledged as perhaps the greatest ever scholar of Irish Legend.  So It’s no surprise that he conceived a plan to retell all of the main story cycles, in novel form.  But history overtook him, and managed to produced just two volumes, Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924).

Here’s an excerpt from Deirdre (the culmination of her fateful encounter with Naoise), which showcases his breathtaking skill as a writer:-

Excerpt

To my mind, Stephens’ Deirdre is the greatest Irish fantasy novel of all time.  James Joyce was so taken by it, that he engaged Stephens to finish Finnegan’s Wake for him, if he – Joyce – should die before completing it.

Today, Stephens is almost forgotten, outside of our airports, where copies of The Crock of Gold lurk, waiting to be snapped up a certain kind of tourist, on their way home.  Crock encapsulates part of the reason for his fall; the perceived cod-Oirishery of it, came to be seen, a la Darby O’Gill, as an insult to a would-be modern, forward-looking independent state.

In reality of course, The Crock of Gold is nothing of the sort; it’s a magnificent attempt to write the ultimate fantasy tale of the passing of the old order to the new; of the magic going away.  Ultimately it fails, just as the faerie instauration fails, because even today people still cannot see beyond the leprechauns.  But it is an heroic failure of the highest order.

As for the rest of the reason for Stephens’ fall, like so many other protestants, he came to feel marginalised and ultimately excluded by the profoundly Catholic character in which Pearse and his supporters clothed the Rising and its aftermath.   In questionable health and with a young family to support, Stephens decamped to England in 1925, eventually compounding his ‘treachery’ by going to work for the BBC, at a time when it was still seen as the mouthpiece of the ‘enemy.’

-oOo-

Francis Stuart was born in Townsville, Australia, in 1902, of Irish stock.  The family returned to Ireland while he was still a little boy.  A teenager at boarding school in England during the rising, his biographer Kevin Kiely writes:-

Excerpt

Stuart spectacularly claimed his place within the Celtic Revival when, aged 17, he eloped to Paris with Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult, who was eight years his senior.  A few years earlier Iseult had herself, famously rejected W.B. Yeats who was then in his 50’s.

Stuart’s place in the speculative fiction canon is principally cemented by four novels he wrote for Gollancz in the early 1930’s Pigeon Irish, The Coloured Dome, Try the Sky and Glory.  I’ll discuss the first two, beginning with the more straightforward of the two, The Coloured Dome.

The book assumes an ongoing War of Independence and the story opens in a 1930’s Dublin under British occupation.  There’s been a republican air attack on the occupying forces, and the British are going to execute dozens of hostages unless the IRA leaders turn themselves into Mountjoy by midnight. 

We’re introduced to Talloolagh Macoolagh “The greatest leader the IRA ever had.” In this passage, dressed incognito as a man she walks the quays of Dublin for one last time, before going to turn herself in.  She expects to be shot at dawn.

Excerpt

What I love about this passage is the mention of the trams crossing O’Connell bridge, which of course are not the same ones as we see today.  Stuart’s trams were ripped out in the name of modernity, and after a gap of many decades had to be reinstated at enormous cost to meet today’s urban transport needs.

In the novel, the British gain the upper hand by declining to execute Taloolagh and releasing her.  What Stuart seems to be saying is, “you bloody fools, why didn’t you do that in 1916.”  The book itself is a meditation on the nature of heroism – At the beginning of the book, Talloolagh seems superhuman – moving at will though the occupied city, a semi-mythical presence seemingly capable of anything, but once captured and released her aura is extinguished and she falls back to earth.

Excerpt

Stuart’s Pigeon Irish is a more complex novel.  It foresees united British, Irish and American forces fighting an unnamed superior army coming out of mainland Europe, from their base in Dublin.  Just putting the British and Irish on the same side is an extraordinary construct from a post-partition republican writer and is what, in my view, sets Stuart apart from the tired, black-and-white predictability of many of his peers.  If the book is explicitly about the rise of Nazism, it is prescient, for it was written in 1930, before many of the establishing events of Nazi Germany had taken place.

The book is also a groundbreaker in that it is, in part, an anthropomorphic animal tale, focussing on three carrier pigeons, going about their work in the theatre of war, as in this passage:-

Excerpt

In the end of the book, the allied forces have to cede Dublin to the enemy and retreat to the countryside – from where they plan to prosecute a guerrilla war.  The longer the book goes on, the more the pigeons vanish – it’s as if Stuart, having created them, did not know what to do with them.  The definitive carrier pigeon fantasy novel has yet to be written.

The great conundrum of Francis Stuart is what happened in the decade or so following his four great works of speculative fiction.

Come the outbreak of the Second World War he was estranged from Iseult and found himself in Germany on an academic exchange programme.  And he had met Madeleine, his second wife to be.  For the next four years Stuart broadcast propaganda for the Nazis on their Irland Redaktion service, only quitting in 1944, when he objected to some of its anti Soviet content.  After the war he was arrested by the allied forces and interned, which formed the basis for his autobiographical novel, his best known work Black List Section H.  Finally returning to Ireland in 1953, and marrying Madeleine in 1956, after Iseult’s death, he was dogged for the rest of his life with accusations of anti-Semitism. He died in 2000, aged 97.

For the writer who had produced Pigeon Irish, with all of its subtext, warning of the rise of fascism, it’s a very odd life’s journey to have gone on.

-oOo-

Lastly, I want to briefly mention a novel by John Francis Maguire, a politician and newspaper proprietor from Cork. He wrote, The Next Generation, a political fantasy in 1871. I haven’t read it myself and I’m indebted to Nicholas Whyte’s blog for these few notes:-

Excerpt

It’s nice to see a fantasist of the time looking to solve the Irish question through the efforts of female parliamentarians rather than by armed struggle. On that note, I’ll conclude my talk.  Hopefully we have time for a few questions.

Introduction to Irish SFF: Dublin 2019, Thursday August 15th, 14:00.

While I was moderating this panel, it became clear that some members of the audience were attempting to make a note of all the writers and books being mentioned, so I thought I would put together this list, based on my notes and what else I can remember. I’ll add to it over the next few days and you’re invited to mention any I’ve forgotten in the comments.

Kevin Barry – City of Bohane.

Jane Gilheaney Barry – Cailleach ~Witch.

Máire Brophy – After the World.

Robert Cromie – A Plunge into Space.

Lord Dunsany – The Last Revolution.

Jack Fennell (ed.) – A Brilliant Void.

Sarah Davis Goff – Last Ones Left Alive.

Sarah Maria Griffin – Spare and Found Parts.

Lafcadio Hearn – an Irish writer: an interpreter of Japan for western audiences who collected folklore & ghost stories.

Fred Hoyle – Ossian’s Ride, a bonkers adventure story with an Irish setting, from an English author.

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu – Carmilla.

Nick Larter – Irish Tales.

Eddie Lenihan – storyteller (folktales): find him here.

Ruth Frances Long – the Dubh Linn trilogy.

Ian McDonald – The Dervish House; Queen of Morning, King of Day; Sacrifice of Fools.

Anne McCaffrey – Decision at Doona.

Flann O’Brien – The Third Policeman.

Peadar Ó Guilín – The Call.

Pat O’Shea – Hounds of the Morrigan.

Bram Stoker – Dracula.

James White – author of the Sector General Series.

Jo Zebedee – Inish Carraig.

This list above isn’t meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive survey of all writers – it’s intended just as a recap of who was mentioned in the panel, so please do keep comments to that. I realise there are loads of notable omissions, we’d have liked another hour, so on the same topic, there’s a more extensive Pinterest board of Irish SFF writers (including folklore & horror) here. Do check it out.

What is Historical Fantasy?

I attended a panel at a Con not that long ago which was advertised as addressing the subject of ‘historical fantasy’.  I didn’t enjoy it at all.  Some of my gripes were quite legitimate – the manifestly poor preparation and the frequent off-topic digressions – regular blights upon many of the panels that are served up to the hapless punters these days.  But it later struck me that I might have been a bit harsh in my judgement, in one area.

You see, I have a particular idea of what historical fantasy is, and my definition may well be narrower than that of most people.  Let’s take a look.

I tend to limit my definition of historical fiction to fiction that is broadly based on known historical events, or on the life of an historical figure, even where details or subplots are made up.

If the story takes place in an historical time but the events and characters are mostly invented, then that to me is historical fantasy.  The fantastical elements of the story, such as they are, are drawn from the historical period in question, whether they be mundane things, that seem fantastical to us today simply by dint of their very remove, or actual fantastic things, that put flesh on the folklore or legends of the period in question.

If a story takes place in an historical time period, but creates gates to other worlds, brooking an insurgency of aliens or robots, it’s not historical fantasy any more, irrespective of the time it is set in, it’s just fantasy.  That’s my view at least.  From which you can guess the flavour of supposed ‘historical fantasy’ central to the panel that I was grumbling about.

Naturally, in my own writings I adhere to my own definitions.  I’d consider my stories set in the time of the Russian conquest of Siberia, featuring motifs like Zlata Baba – the Golden Woman of the Ugra, the fortress of Serponov, and Saint Basil of Mangazeya, to be historical fantasy, but others might disagree.

So what well-known works would I consider to be proper historical fantasy? Some examples would be Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace novels, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, and  Men Went to Cattraeth, by John James, which to my mind, is probably the finest historical fantasy novel ever written.

Cattraeth is based on a mediaeval Welsh poem, the Gododdin of Aneirin, and contains the most brilliant twist regarding the ulterior motive behind sending the three hundred heroes to their doom.  To me, it’s pure historical fantasy though I know some critics regard it simply as historical fiction.  James wrote several other historical fantasies including the fabulous The Bridge of Sand, where a small Roman force, lost in Wales, is cut down, one man at a time, by the magic of druids, and the high concept Votan and its sequel Not for All the Gold in Ireland, both of which I hated (The American Gods style trope underpinning the stories didn’t gel with me).

The thing I really like about Mundy’s Tros books, is how Julius Caesar keeps popping up at critical moments to complicate everything: he’s the Joker to Tros’ Batman.  It’s one of the best uses anywhere of a real historical cameo, in an invented story.

The Anubis Gates, is typical of the works of Tim Powers set in historical periods, in that it ratchets up the weirdness: On Stranger Tides and The Stress of Her Regard are other good examples of Powers’ style.  What I particularly like about the first two, is Powers’ literal representation of the principals of sympathetic magic, as understood by the alchemists of eighteenth century England.  By way of cameos, at the climax of Gates, there is a fine one from Samuel Taylor Coleridge who dismisses the monsters all around as phantoms brought on by an opium-induced bender.  Gates of course also has an SF element to it as the protagonists travel back in time to the historical period in question, so it’s borderline historical fantasy, even by my own tenets, but then again, it features the poet William Ashbless, so I’ll forgive it almost anything.

An Open Letter to the Members of Dublin 2019 (Worldcon 77)

Dear Dublin 2019 Members,

you may already be aware, from my previous posts here and on social media, of my disquiet at the idea that we may shortly be voting to award Worldcon 79 (2021) to a bid locating it in the United States of America, in Washington DC.

This disquiet comes from my belief that the current immigration rules in place at the US border, are not compatible with the inclusive, diversity-embracing values of our science fiction community.  I believe that a vote for DC in 2021, a) sends a message to fans of certain nationalities, ethnicities and of Muslim faith that the rest of us don’t care if they have difficulties attending in 2021 or are even prevented from doing so, and b) signals that our community is, at best indifferent to, or at worst, endorses the onward march of the US towards fascism.

When political philosopher Hannah Arendt studied the rise of fascism in 1930’s Germany she was able to summarise the mechanism behind it in a single neat phrase: Participation is Support.

In the current climate, any international event organiser in the US deciding to authorise their event to go ahead is signalling that, whatever their own personal politics, they’re OK with the immigration rules currently in place.  In other words, they’re participating.

-oOo-

If, like me, you share these concerns, please consider voting in Dublin for ‘None of the Above,’ on the 2021 bid ballot.  A victory for ‘None of the Above’ shifts the decision on 2021 back to the Worldcon Business Meeting.  This body is largely free of constraints on how it can act, in such an instance.  The one thing that several correspondents familiar with Worldcon procedures who have been in touch with me these past few days have been at pains to point out, is that it is paramount to respect the will of the voters.  For this reason, I think it is unlikely that the Business Meeting would overrule the ‘None of the Above’ choice and rubber stamp the Washington DC bid.  ‘None of the Above’ therefore seems to me to offer the best chance of achieving a different outcome.

Thanks for spending time to read my letter,

Nick

Why We in the Science Fiction Community Should Reject Washington DC in 2021.

I’ve been a lifelong member of the science fiction community.  My first event was the 1984 Eastercon in Birmingham, my first Worldcon was Brighton in 1987.  In the 80’s and 90’s, I paid my volunteering dues in spades, projecting 16mm for the punters at all hours of the day and night.  When the technology moved on, I never found another niche I felt comfortable in, and so I became just another attendee and occasional programme participant, giving talks on the International Space Station, parts of which I designed. Since moving to Ireland in the late 1990’s, I’ve been a regular participant in the science fiction scene here.

But I’ve never been the activist type – it just doesn’t suit my temperament.  Goodness, I tried when I was young, knocking on doors for Labour in south London in the 1980’s, but the emotional investment just took too much out of me.  I’m much more useful in a back room, making tea for those resilient enough to hustle the sharp end.  Nowadays, it takes a lot to make me stick my nose over the parapet.

But it strikes me that the science fiction community that I love is about to sleepwalk over a cliff, and I’m not hearing any other voices of alarm.  So needs must.

In a little over five weeks a group of people in Dublin – some hailing from Ireland, the rest from many other countries – are going to be making a decision: they’re going to be voting on the location for the 79th Worldcon, to be held in 2021.  Put like that, it doesn’t sound difficult, but there’s a complicating factor: at present, there’s only one bid on the table, and it’s from Washington DC.

Let me put it another way.  Our community, which in general has an excellent record of embracing all kinds of diversity and inclusivity, is going to be asked to rubber stamp a location in a country, the current immigration policies of which will ensure that some science fiction fans who would like to attend are going to be prevented from doing so, because of their religion, homeland or ethnicity.  More still will run the risk of intrusive personal inconvenience or other unacceptable disruption to their travel plans, during the immigration process.

You think I’m overreacting?  It was these exact same policies that prevented Star Wars: Rogue One star Riz Ahmed from attending an event in the US in April.  If a public figure like him can have problems, what hope is there for the ordinary fans?

In all honesty, I don’t understand why the Washington DC bid organisers haven’t looked at the current situation in the US and said, “Y’know what, this won’t do, so we’re just going to put plans on hold for a few years, until the open, welcoming America we once knew and loved, has come back again.”

But maybe I’m doing them an injustice.  Maybe they have examined all this already.  Maybe they plan to offer pre-travel support to fans who want to get a G-28 form in place, just in case.  Maybe they plan to have teams of immigration lawyers working pro-bono, ready to deploy at east coast airports in the run up to the con.  Maybe they are going to provide a free pool of burner smartphones and tablets for attendees to use while in the US, so they don’t have to risk bringing their own devices through immigration.  But on the other hand, maybe once they realised that they ought to do all that if they went ahead, the other option should have been a no-brainer.

Or maybe they’re just hoping that the problem will go away in 2020.  From where I’m sitting that doesn’t seem so likely and in any case, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to wait and see?

For these reasons I believe the science-fiction community has a duty to reject Washington DC as the venue for the 2021 Worldcon. It would be grossly delinquent of us to act in any other way.  And if we do sleepwalk over that cliff in Dublin in a month’s time, then the virtual red caps that will appear on our heads and the virtual red armbands materialising on our shirts will ensure that from that moment forth, we can never represent our community as a champion of diversity and inclusiveness again.

UPDATE 16/07/2019

Yesterday I sent an email to the address provided for the Dublin Worldcon Business Meeting, enquiring how I should proceed.  I have so far heard nothing back.  But others have kindly informed me online that the Business Meeting has no control over the voting process.  I have now looked at the relevant ballot paper.  It seems that if a majority of voters select the None of the Above option for the 2021 Worldcon location, then the Business Meeting is supposed to decide where it should be located.  On this basis, I’ll be voting None of the Above in Dublin.

UPDATE 17/07/2019

I’m very grateful to all the online correspondents who have helped to clarify things for me.  It does seem that under the current rules, if there were a None of the Above vote, then the Business Meeting would have little option other than just overruling it and going back to the bids on the table.  Since there is just one, from Washington DC, then its success is effectively ring-fenced, whatever the outcome of the popular vote.  I suppose it would be possible to try and change the rules, to give the Business Meeting the option of deciding  ‘no award’ as an alternative.  However, since the deadline for motions is today, and since the Business Meeting has not, so far, engaged with me (even though I asked for advice in my email, and even though the Dublin 2019 website invites people to contact us at that address in advance if you need help crafting your proposal into the correct format), I don’t see that there is enough time left now for a motion to be formulated, (even assuming that such a motion would be admissible and not out of scope).

It’s a good thing that some debate occurred.  It makes me feel a bit less dispirited knowing that we’ll at least be deciding what we decide with our eyes open. I’ll still be voting None of the Above in Dublin, as a point of principle. Other than that, I don’t see what more I can do.

Last Year at the Island of Dr. Morel.

And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad. 

– Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel.

I’d have been eighteen or nineteen years old when I first saw Last Year at Marienbad, and I immediately fell in love with it.  It is a movie with the simplest of plots: amongst the guests at a château, a man seeks to persuade (or jog the memory of) a woman, that they had met the previous year at the resort of Marienbad, and agreed to run away together.

I have watched it umpteen times since, as well as devouring Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novelisation (Robbe-Grillet co-wrote the screenplay with director Alain Resnais), and all the time, the feeling has never left me that beneath the utterly straightforward veneer, there must be something entirely fantastical going on. I’m not sure quite where this idea came from, but perhaps it is the cumulative effect of the glacial pacing, the rather stilted characters and the über-arty cinematography.  Yet now, to my considerable surprise, I find that this total leap of faith has been perfectly vindicated.

I discovered a couple of months ago that Marienbad was partly inspired by the 1940 novella The Invention of Morel by Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares.  Naturally, I had to track it down, and now I’ve read it.

The first noteworthy thing is that Morel is an absolutely full-on work of science fiction.  This I had not expected, since ‘Bioy’ as he is invariably known, was a protégé of J. L. Borges, so I started out thinking more in terms of a magical realist solution to the mystery surrounding the people that the narrator finds himself sharing a remote island with.

But no [spoilers].  Morel is the archetypal mad scientist.  Bioy supposedly chose the name because of its similarity to Moreau, channelling H.G. Wells.  But whereas Moreau used vivisection to populate his island, Morel has invented a recording machine and thus the narrator finds himself in the midst of, effectively, a holographic movie of such verisimilitude that the images are indistinguishable from real people.  The movie lasts a week and is on endless repeat.  In it, Morel seeks to convince one of the women, Faustine, to go away with him.  Though the narrator cannot interact directly with the images, he concocts a fantasy that he and Faustine are lovers, by inserting himself into the times and places she appears on the island.

So.  Just wow!  I can’t wait to watch Marienbad again, with all this new knowledge.

But more than that, I’m becoming truly fascinated by the next logical step, which might best be described as the Westworld option.  Just consider it – Mitteleuropaworld – where guests, dressed to the nines in their cocktail dresses and tuxedos, go to dine and stroll with androids, amidst glittering chandeliers, mirrored halls, fountains, lawns and pyramids of manicured box.  I might have to write something. 😀