Month: October 2014

Irish Speculative Fiction Writers: Francis Stuart (1902 – 2000)

Australian-born Francis Stuart ought to have stood astride twentieth century Ireland as a speculative fiction colossus.  Everything fit; his marriage, when aged just eighteen, to the iconic Iseult Gonne who was then almost a decade his senior; his movement in the literary circles of the time which kick-started a writing career spanning seventy-five years; his deep commitment to republicanism, especially during the inter-war years.  That he did not, is in a large part due to the decades-long fall-out, due to his propaganda broadcasts from Berlin on the Irland Redaktion, in the later years of World War II; a circumstance which delayed his admission into the Aosdána until he was well into his nineties.

Stuart’s relationship with the Germany of this period is complex to say the least.  Having gone in 1939 on a academic programme, which the Irish State’s official stance of neutrality appears to have encouraged, he met his second wife to be, Madeleine, there not long after.  He appears to have regarded his broadcasting work from 1942 onwards as just the ‘day job.’ He was clearly naive. There’s little evidence of anything anti-Semitic in his personal worldview (indeed it was a London-based Jew, Victor Gollancz who was responsible for building him a successful speculative fiction career in the early 1930’s after his first publisher, Cape had dumped him due to poor sales).  Nor did he even have the commonly held IRA man’s view of the time that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’  Of all the Irish novelists of that period who were writing on republican themes, Stuart is almost unique in that his protagonists were thoughtful, ambivalent, even diffident figures, rather than the black and white heroic caricatures then being created by the likes of Walter Macken and Liam O’Flaherty.  In later years Stuart defended his conduct during his German time, as a personal learning experience.

‘Of course in one sense better I had kept clear of the whole business, but had I done so, had I not suffered, I would not have come to my present knowledge.’

This period in his life, culminating in his arrest and imprisonment by the allies, is dealt with in his autobiographical novel Black List – Section H (1971).

Though Stuart returned to speculative fiction with his late work Faillandia (1985), set in an imaginary war-torn ireland, his great period writing in the genre, coinciding with his time at Gollancz, was in the early 1930’s, with the novels Pigeon Irish (1932), The Coloured Dome (1932), Try the Sky (1933) and Glory (1933).

The first two are both set in an imaginary war-torn Ireland, clearly a recurring theme of his.  Though Pigeon Irish reimagines some of the events of the Civil War, such as the destruction of the Four Courts, its republican heroes are fighting alongside the English and Americans against a nameless, technologically superior foe.  There are two strands to the novel.  In one, the human protagonists agonise over a desperate plan to cede Dublin to the enemy and flee to the countryside, to mount a guerilla war.  In the other, in a move which anticipates such great genre novels as Watership Down and Doctor Rat, the three intrepid carrier pigeons, Buttercup, Conquistador and Daphnis, fly their intelligence missions over a surreal war-torn landscape of drones and beam weapons.

It’s tempting to want to see Pigeon Irish as a warning novel about the rise of Nazism, especially given the opportunity to contrast it with what Stuart himself was doing a decade later, but since Hitler had not even come to power until after its publication, that is perhaps ascribing an unlikely degree of prescience.  We should perhaps leave that job to the great Irish speculative fiction novels from later in the decade, such as Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) and James Creed Meredith’s The Rainbow in the Valley (1939).  More likely it was Stuart’s way of harking back to his recollections of 1916 and 1922.  His choice of an imagined setting and of putting the Irish on the same side as the English, is typical of his willingness to eschew the well-trodden path.

The Coloured Dome is my favourite of Stuart’s works I’ve read to date.  In it, the republican protagonists are captured by the enemy (whoever they are), imprisoned and sentenced to death.  The book is a daring, metaphysical meditation on the nature of heroism.  Whilst the protagonists have a death-sentence on their heads they become almost super-human and experience the world in a heightened way.  After they are pardoned, however, everything turns to the dust of ordinariness once again.

By 1933, Nazism was certainly on Stuart’s radar as it apparently features prominently in the Vienna scenes of his allegorical fantasy on the nature of ‘The Abyss’ Try the Sky.  I haven’t located a copy to read yet and the reviews I’ve found lack clarity.  In the first part, a lot of the action is set in a motor boat on the Danube and there’s also a native American character named Princess Buttercup.  The second part of the book focuses on a mysterious journey on a strange aircraft called ‘The Spirit.’

Glory by contrast is a work of pure imagination and tells the tale of a Chinese dictator, who wants to bomb and gas the world into submission.

To conclude this short survey let’s meet the pigeons of Pigeon Irish:-

‘They flew slowly with a quick wing-beat.  Conquistador ahead; a slate-grey cock pigeon.  Behind flew two hen pigeons, or as they were called in the slang the birds spoke, pidjanes.  Conquistador was a pidjohn.  Tied to the coral legs of each of the three were the same words in code.’ 

‘A violent green light swept up from a snow-covered peak. The clouds turned green. The birds quivered with light on their shining feathers; like shot silk.’

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Taking the Pith

I’ve not, so far, been a massive Steampunk aficionado, though that said, I was probably reading and hugely enjoying Blaylock’s early Langdon St. Ives novels before the genre even had a name.  Anyway, to try and gen up a bit, I went to a Steampunk panel at one of the cons I attended earlier in the year.  This was a mistake; what I wanted was Steampunk 101 but what I wandered into was more like postdoctoral fare.  If I found the panellists a po-faced and humourless bunch, therefore, that was probably my fault more than theirs and though I tried my best to tune in, ninety percent of it went right over my head.

One thing rankled though.  A bald proclamation that pith helmets should be banned from Steampunk cosplay because they were offensive symbols of colonial oppression.  Even in the real world my instincts suggest to me that this measure is a little over the top, even if the reasoning behind it might bear a grain of truth.  I recall a trip to Addis, where the gate to the egregious Sheraton compound was guarded by a pair of haughty, be-pithed gatekeepers.  Arriving there for a meeting in the smoke-belching, Lada rustbucket I had chosen for a taxi, my driver and I were detained for some minutes by these goons while they tried every excuse not to admit us and thereby sully their oasis.  Eventually, to stop their increasing humiliation of my driver, I had no option but to play the irate white boy card and take them down a peg.  It worked and I then made sure I used that taxi for every other trip to the Sheraton that week.  So yes; a grain.

Notwithstanding my earlier remarks, I’m not an expert in colonial history and if the historians are really putting it that strongly, then I’m happy to stand corrected and bow to their knowledge.  However.  Yes there’s a however.  Our steampunk worlds tell alternative histories. They have clockwork rayguns, marvellous goggles and fantastical airships.  Are we really saying that while we can change history to introduce these wonderful devices, the symbols of oppression from the real world are immutable and have to convey the same message in our alternate worlds?  Not very alternate then, are they?  So far as I can see it’s just one more example of political correctness gone mad.

It makes me want to write a Steampunk story about a valiant adventurer, the pith-topped Matt Helmet, who patrols the Congo river in his spiffy submarine the Tigerfish, righting colonial wrongs, a symbolic pith helmet carved onto the verandah of every vanquished villain, before he melts once more into the night.  And in the mornings when the people see it there, they cheer!