Irish Speculative Fiction

Like Cardboard Scarecrows on the See-saw

The idea for this short memoir comes while I’m nursing a pint in Dublin’s DC Music Club last night, waiting for Dr. Strangely Strange to take the stage.  Save for a few people whom I’d likely tag as offspring of the band, I’m practically the youngest person in the room – a plum-coloured, basement timewarp of faded flock wallpaper and fringed curtains – not a thing that happens to me very often, any more.

As far as rock music goes, the psychedelia from a few years either side of 1970, in all its infinite variety, is most definitely my thing; everything from The Zombies & Arthur Brown, to H.P. Lovecraft & Amon Düül II.  So I’d for a long time been vaguely aware that Dr. Strangely Strange existed, without, save for one track on an Island Records compilation album, ever having got around to dipping my toes into their oeuvre.  I certainly don’t think I’d ever appreciated that they were an Irish band.  If I had one single example of Irish psychedelia in my consciousness, it would have been Andwella’s towering ‘World’s End Part I’.

But as a wise man once said “Strangers have met on longer trains before”.  Eighteen months or so ago, I began sketching out my plan for world domination via my debut short story collection, Irish Tales (which is out on September 28th this year).  The first task I decided to address, was commissioning an illustrator and, seeing as I was just starting out on the writing side, I thought it would be fitting to give a newbie a break on the art side.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to go about finding an artist – I used Google image search a lot, and contacted the ones whose work gelled with me.

Without exception, every budding artist I got in touch with was way too overloaded with work to take a commission from me.  This repeated over and over until the search for an illustrator was threatening to become a nightmare.  Whatever happened to toiling unrecognised in garrets?  In desperation, I broadened my criteria and quickly found Kerry-based Tim Booth.  Tim is many things, but a newbie is not one of them: from his profile it seemed he was a long-time graphic designer and fine artist who latterly had moved into comics and found success drawing the latest reincarnation of Dan Dare.

Tim was available, and I signed him up.  Working entirely through email we hit it off well over the ether: he had a good appreciation of what I was looking for and I, in turn found it easy to give him direction when it was needed.  The fruitfulness of the relationship is no better encapsulated than in the detailed and exacting brief I provided for the artwork for the book’s cover, which almost incredibly (to me) he absolutely nailed first go.  I was delighted.

But over time, I gradually copped on to something else entirely: that Tim was one of the principals of Dr. Strangely Strange.  As the clouds parted, I began to realise that the band had been active for longer and had more output than I had previously imagined. For the first time, I gave them a good listen, and of course wished then that I had first done so a long time ago. I marvelled over their unique sound, exemplified by Ivan Pawle’s ethereal voice, complex vocal harmonies, the agile imagery of their lyrics (Like Cardboard Scarecrows on the See-saw – priceless!), and the magus’ arsenal of eclectic instruments they deployed.  Science-fiction aficionados should check out the fabulous ‘Mirror Mirror’, a bonus track from the reissue of their first album; Kip of the Serenes: it’s quickly become my favourite Strangelies track of all.

Which kind of brings me full circle back to the gig last night, which was taking place on foot of the launch of a book about the band, going on as I write. It was, first and foremost, lovely for me to finally meet Tim in person, and thank him for his work.  I hope we’ll be working together again shortly.  It was naturally great to hear the band live and to report, considering that it’s fifty years since Kip and that they don’t perform regularly, how good the gig was.  Of course the sound of a voice like Pawle’s is something that necessarily changes with age, but he has kept his distinctive phrasing, so it was recognisably him.

And I heard some great songs for the first time, particularly a couple penned by Tim Goulding; one about Kerry herring fishermen and another a setting of some Gerard Manley Hopkins: I must track down the albums containing them.  I think the gig last night will have well and truly blown the cobwebs away – the one tonight, after the launch, should be pretty special.

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Ten of the Best. #5: A Cave Full of Blind, Trigger-happy Pirates.

Beatrice Grimshaw (born 1871, Co. Antrim – died 1953, New South Wales, Australia) had one of the most extraordinary lives of any Irish writer of speculative fiction.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, she ran away from home to the South Seas, supporting herself through travel journalism and fiction writing.

Consider these snippets from an  autobiographical sketch that she wrote:-

  • I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke;
  • On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. It came rather closer than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house… …I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran; 
  • I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night.

Most of her fiction falls into the adventure genre.  Two novels cross the boundary into the realm of the fantastical – The Sorcerer’s Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919).  The latter is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I love its sense of place: where else can one read contemporary accounts of the expat life in New Guinea, a hundred years ago?

Secondly, I love the set up, with probably the most useless MacGuffin in all fiction – a horde of supposed treasure that is effectively worthless (on account of the tiny geographical area and the very limited market in which it might be spent), located on ‘Ku-Ku’s Island,’ somewhere out beyond the Lusancays, and guarded by ‘pigeon devils’ that will blind any intruder. [Spoilers Ahead!]  In Scooby-Doo-like fashion, the supernatural element turns out to be grounded in reality, the blindness being caused not by infernal birds, but through consumption of the tasty looking fruits of the finger cherry (Rhodomyrtus sp.) that grow all over the island.

But best of all is the terrifying set piece that Grimshaw is able to establish, on foot of this scenario.  Shortly after her protagonists first set foot on the island, they blunder into a cave full of blinded and very jumpy pirates, who are also looking for the treasure and who are armed to the teeth with guns 😀  Satisfying chaos ensues.

Stark Enigmas

The best SF short story I read in 2018 was Chike Deluna’s Stark!!! 

Picture this: an implacable spider god, the Lady Genevieve Desdemona, lounges in the bowl of a communications dish, idly watching a cat-burglar go about his business on a neighbouring skyscraper. She sees the thief successfully break into an apartment before, once inside, triggering an impossibly fiendish booby trap, a melange of pendulums, pulleys and automatons called the “Stark Enigma,” that will surely kill him…

It’s a great set-up, and the means by which the thief thereafter cheats death is satisfyingly memorable.

The path by which I reached this point, lounging in front of the fire at home, reading an e-copy of Deluna’s Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, is almost as fascinating.

Many on the Irish SF scene know that from time to time,  I assist the Michaels Scott and Carroll in curating the Irish SF, Fantasy & Horror Writers Pinterest board.  The qualification for inclusion is simple: writers either Irish born or resident in Ireland.  Even so, George Chyke Udenkwo (b. 1967, Newry) is one of the more enigmatic entries, the author of one work, Golgotha Falls: Genesis (2008).

The first thing you notice about Golgotha Falls: Genesis, when you start googling around, is how consistently good the star ratings are.  They hit percentages uncommon even for the big boys and unheard of for most bargain basement self-published doorwedges.  My curiosity was officially piqued.  Coming to the book cold, my first instinct was to expect a little Hiberno-Nigerian Afrofuturism but Golgotha Falls (the titular city) is rather a classic science fantasy setting: an ultra far future megalopolis, ruled by gods, yet with the sort of near future noir vibe more associated with Blade Runner.  The overarching theme of the interlinked stories is the interactions between the human denizens of Golgotha Falls and the implacable spider god Lady Genevieve Desdemona…

As the Lady Genevieve D. does over Golgotha Falls, so Udenkwo leaves clues about himself at various locations over the Internet, in particular a nice little biography here.  From these traces one can glean both that he was dissatisfied with the production quality of the  initial release of Golgotha Falls: Genesis and that he was writing further volumes.

Fast forward to 2012 and another ephemeral website and horror and fantasy author Chike Deluna is offering, inter-alia, several volumes of the adventures of Lady Genevieve Desdemona, the first of which is Mistress of the Web: The Black Book, the content of which, including the short story Stark!!!, corresponds to approximately the first half of the material in Golgotha Falls: Genesis.   The other volumes comprise MotW: The White Book, MotW: The Red Book and MotW: The Blue Book.

Fast forward again to 2018 and Chike Deluna, now based in India, appears to have cracked this self-publishing lark and is offering six or seven excellent looking horror and fantasy novels (but not, so far as I could tell, the Mistress of the Web series) for sale from a shiny new website.  Fair play indeed.  I must add The Cosmic Foot Masseur to my reading list.

Now I can’t say for certain that George Udenkwo and Chike Deluna are the same person.  For all I know, the latter discovered the decomposing remains of the former in an alley somewhere, clutching a portmanteau stuffed with thousands of manuscript pages of the adventures of the aforementioned Lady Genevieve D.  But whatever the truth of it, I did have fun unravelling the thread.  And reader, do yourselves a big favour in 2019 and track down a copy of Golgotha Falls: Genesis or the Mistress of the Web ebooks and get stuck into some of the finest science fantasy out there.

 

Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney

I’ve been to some great stuff at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (CJAF) over the years: the puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees, and 3epkano, live playing their soundtrack to accompany The Golem, particularly spring to mind.  So it was with high hopes that I went to the world premier of Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The festival programme billed the piece as a …unique blend of new music and spoken word… …commissioned by leading uilleann piper David Power, and written by New York-based composer Dana Lyn… [and] …performed by Power together with acclaimed string ensemble the ConTempo Quartet. Interwoven with the music, actor Barry McGovern reads excerpts from a translation of the ancient story… This sort of mélange could go several ways; what was served up was very much a straight contemporary music concert and none the worse for that.

Bookended by two other short works, the 45 minutes or so of Buile Shuibhne consisted of seven passages read from the poem, each followed by a musical recapitulation of the action described.

The story of Sweeney was new to me.  In summary, Sweeney, the pagan King of Dál Riada, offends Saint Ronan the Fair, who is erecting a church in his territory without permission.  As a result  Ronan, curses Sweeney to wander about the world naked and in madness until he should die by spear point.  And so it transpires, with much blood letting along the way, giving the lie to the notion that in Ireland the transition from paganism to Christianity was bloodless, as David Power noted in his introduction.

The one jarring note in the tale is Sweeney’s death-bed embrace of Christianity at the end.  Presumably this is the authorial propaganda of the time.  It is rather the implacable Ronan, with his lack of compassion and his cursing, that radiates the evil as the action is unfolding; Sweeney is merely headstrong.  There seems to be no good reason why his repentance should be accompanied by a spiritual cost.

I found the full text of J.G. O’Keeffe’s 1913 translation of the poem on-line.  I’m not sure if it was the same text used for the performance, but it seems very similar.  Here’s an excerpt of the story contained in the opening movement:-

Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and
he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the
church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson
cloak which was around him, so that the fibula of pure white
silver, neatly inlaid with gold, which was on his cloak over
his breast, sprang through the house. Therewith, leaving his
cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift
career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached
the place where Ronan was.

He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of
heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his
lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibhne took up
the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake
which was near him, so that it was drowned therein.

And this from the second movement:-

Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter
that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and
neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks
to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibhne, saying:
‘Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord,
that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it
be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying
throughout the world ; may it be death from a spear-point
that will carry him off.’

The playing of the ConTempo Quartet was impressively lively and inventive.  I particularly enjoyed the musical depiction of Sweeney leaping across the land, pursued by five severed heads.  The one weak moment was the one weakness of the piece itself, the unpromising opening of the first movement, which doesn’t immediately snare the listener, drawing them in, but rather threatens a difficult evening ahead.

David Power’s pipes surprised me.  I enjoy uilleann pipe music, but most that I’ve listened to has had a more ringing character.  Here we had a lower and more plaintive sound – I kept thinking of the shepherd’s pipes in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  I know nothing of the technical capabilities of the instrument, so presumably there are variations of chanters with other pitches and different tuning methods one can apply.  Perhaps this was a choice made so as not to swamp the string quartet.  That certainly never happened, though there were a couple of passages where the quartet threatened to overwhelm the pipes.

The readings were nicely done by Barry McGovern.  I found the overall narrative somewhat disjointed, but O’Keeffe, in the introduction to his translation, suggests that this is an inherent characteristic of the poem.  If so, it’s a good reason to structure the piece the way it was, with seven passages and seven movements, rather than trying to have the words and music flowing more into each other.

I think the performance is touring to other venues over the summer.  If so, it’s well worth catching up with.  I hope they make a recording.

 

On Scientific Fiction

When Hugo Gernsback was first casting around for a pithy term for the new genre fiction he was featuring  in his pulps, he opted for the portmanteau ‘Scientifiction.’  It didn’t catch on and, rather reluctantly, he tried again, this time with ‘Science Fiction.’

The earliest of his magazines, with titles like Electrical Experimenter (founded 1913), featured both stories and science journalism.  By the time Amazing Stories – his first magazine solely dedicated to SF – arrived, in 1926, the genre had already settled down into the standard form for the Golden Age – stories set in the future, often on distant planets featuring extraterrestrials, speculating, more or less wildly, on how the technologies of the time might one day have advanced.

Tales which particularly closely adhered to the known laws of physics, became known as ‘Hard’ SF.  This sub-genre is exemplified by Hal Clement’s classic short Dust Rag (1956), in which a lunar explorer out on EVA, has to figure out how to clear away the statically-charged moon dust covering his visor, or die.  The story is both satisfyingly scientific and, by virtue of its future lunar setting, classic SF.

Which is all a roundabout way of broaching the question; is all scientific fiction, Science Fiction, or does there arrive a point where the science component of the story is so rooted in the known and the present that it becomes something different?

I recently read Those Who Seek, Daniil Granin’s 1954 novel about the lives and loves of staff at a Soviet electrical power transmission research institute.  It’s a thrilling and absorbing tale, in part because of the window it opens onto how (relatively) ordinary people lived their lives under the Soviet system, in part because of what the book has to say about that system itself (and it’s not in any way a propaganda piece) and in part because of the gorgeous translation by Robert Dalglish (mine is the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, edition), which brings the story alive and makes you care about the characters.

The overarching story focusses on new laboratory head, the aloof and unworldly Lobanov.  At work, he battles conflicting resource demands, Party politics and bureaucratic inertia, to try and get support for the development of his baby – an improved ‘locator’ for finding breaks in transmission lines.  Off duty, the reader follows the course of his unsatisfactory affair with the enigmatic Rita.

There are scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in science and technology.  The heartbreaking one where engineer-turned-housewife Liza first attends, the flees her class reunion after suffering the disdainful disappointment of her former professor.  The joyous epiphany via which the fading Chief Engineer, Dmitri Alexeyevich first grasps and then decides to back Lobanov’s project.  And of course you want to slap Lobanov around the head a few times, when he rebuffs force-of-nature Nina’s interest in him at the annual Komsomol outing.

And there are some fabulous throwaway references, notably to the finest poetry on scientific themes being that written by the great Lomonosov.  Granin, the author, would doubtless have been very familiar with his works.  Now I despair of ever finding any in English translation, well apart from this one.

Is Those Who Seek SF?  My heart says yes, my head says no, even given the MacGuffin of Lobanov’s ‘locator.’  I have another Granin in my ‘to read’ pile: Into The Storm about weather forecasting/control – let’s see how that turns out!

In western SF, the works of William Gibson are an interesting case.  Since his debut Neuromancer (1984) and its off-planet denouément – undeniably SF, he’s slowly been creeping back towards the present and reining-in the tech to the point where Spook Country (2007) is almost better labelled a techno-thriller.  Maybe that’s one way we reclassify fiction dealing with the known science of the present.

In Irish writing, John Banville’s biographical trilogy of works on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton (Doctor Copernicus (1976) (which I read this year), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982)) is sometimes loosely referred to as science fiction.  The three books are, of course, first and foremost historical fiction about scientists but Banville infuses them with enough reflection on the nature of the cosmos, that treating  them as forward-looking speculative fiction is not unreasonable.

Scientific fiction is a without question a topic that grows in the telling.  I can see myself returning to it again in the not too distant future.

Animal Stories

I’ve been asked several times in recent months, why I never seem to pen anything about my own writing.  I suppose my reticence stems from being largely unpublished; what is the point, if nobody ‘out there’ is going to be in a position to read anything that I refer to, should they like the sound of it?

My Irish Tales ought to have been out later this summer.  Unfortunately, the editor I hired to help me, took my money, then promptly decamped to China and vanished, leaving work unfinished (I know, I know – I was stupid enough to pay upfront – what did I expect?) – so it’s going to be delayed until spring 2018.  Nevertheless, I’ve decided to stick to my original plan and say a little bit about the book now.  Keeping the momentum building for nine months or so is going to be interesting.

Surprisingly, Irish Tales will feature several examples of something I never thought I’d ever write – the story written from the animal’s (anthropomorphic) viewpoint.  Of course I’d read and enjoyed Jack London’s White Fang as a kid but, with the exception of William Kotzwinkle’s stunning Doctor Rat, I’d never sought out similar books as an adult.

The seeds of change were sown when I came to read Francis Stuart’s Pigeon Irish, as background for one of my Irish speculative fiction blogs.  I was surprised that this tale of an alternate Ireland allied with the US and UK, in a war against an unnamed, superior European foe (it was written in 1932), included a sub plot featuring three carrier pigeons: Conquistador, Daphnis and Buttercup.

Stuart never really seemed to know what to do with his birds; they start strong but fizzle out, the longer the book goes on; certainly, the definitive anthropomorphic carrier pigeon novel remains to be written.  However, when commemorations for 1916 started to loom large, I decided to write a short hommage to Stuart, positing ‘what if’ the Rising had occurred in this alternate Ireland, sixteen years before the events of Pigeon Irish.  The resulting short story, Castles in the Air, was told from the viewpoint of two pigeons observing the events around the Dublin GPO.  I submitted it to several publications doing special 1916 issues, for their consideration; I think it’s fair to say that none of them ‘got it.’  But I had broken my anthropomorphic duck.

Next up was my short story Lemon Cakes, in which a Jack Russell dog, Smut, falls foul of some broic sidhe (fairy badgers).  The titular cakes feature in how he manages to extricate himself from the fix.  Smut, incidentally, was the name of the first pet dog I ever owned, many moons ago, also a Jack Russell as it happens.  They say, write what you know!  Recently, I was delighted to discover that the name of Allan Quatermain’s pet dog was also Smut.  The reference can be found in H. Rider Haggard’s She and Allan.

Lemon Cakes spawned a longer and more ambitious sequel, The Limping Mink, told largely through the viewpoint of a mink Lochincha and concerning the adventures of he and his two brothers, Sangwiss and Kolokok in rural Ireland and in particular the horrors of being caught in a gin.  Smut and the broic sidhe also reappear in the tale. As mink are an invasive species from North America, I gave the three brothers a native American belief system, centred on Inktomi the spider-man, trickster god of the Lakota Sioux.  Mink feature prominently in several Lakota folktales.

So Castles in the Air, Lemon Cakes and The Limping Mink will all appear in Irish Tales when it comes out.  And having travelled this far, I can now see myself writing many more animal stories in the future!

Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir.’

I’ve long wanted to see The Weir and the Gaiety Theatre’s new production finally gave me the opportunity.  It’s fair to say that, excellent though it was, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

When one is making one’s lists of speculative fiction writers it’s easy to overlook the playwrights, if they work little in other written forms and rightly or wrongly, The Weir had popped up on my radar in this context.

The play does contain four supernatural stories, told by four of the five protagonists.  There’s a family tragedy story, a messing about with the ouija board story, a burial story and a story of the faeries.  Three of them were ho-hum run of the mill sort of stuff, at least for this aficionado of the form.  The fourth – the one told by handyman Jim – was pretty stunning.

To call The Weir a work of supernatural fiction, however, is perhaps over-egging the pudding.  Equally, it’s unfair to lump it in with those ensemble pub and club tall stories – Buchan’s Runagates, or Dunsany’s Jorkens, for example – which are an end to themselves, for the tales, as told in The Weir have a more transcendent effect on the narrative.

This narrative has two strands.  The first is a very conventional one for Irish drama- that of the sad, lonely lives of rural men; the first ‘act’ (the play runs for nearly two hours without a break), cursing aside, could have been written by Synge, Friel or anyone in between.  The third ‘act’ too, is straight out of this mould, as the young blank cypher, the barman Brendan, is completely unable to respond to Jack’s tale of lost love, thereby likely condemning himself to a similarly empty fate.

The second strand belongs to the long second ‘act’ which contains the supernatural stories.  Blow-in Valerie is fleeing family tragedy and it is through hearing the others’ supernatural tales, told as if true, that she begins to believe in the truth of her own tale; they are thus the catalyst for her healing process to begin.

As I mentioned above, Jim’s tale is the standout by a long way.  The playwright knows this as evidenced by the prolonged, gobsmacked silence on stage when Jim finishes.  It would be the perfect place to break the play for an interval too – let the audience stew on what they’ve just heard for twenty minutes or so.  Overall, though the production was strong, entertaining and the time just flew by.

Great Con: Shame About the Rebellion

So Octocon 2016 has come and gone and what a good one it was!  As a long-time Tomb Raider, Russian mythology and Zimiamvia nut, I couldn’t have put together a better Guest of Honour line-up to suit my interests than Diane Duane, Peter Morwood and Rhianna Pratchett, if I had been running the con myself!

But of of course having the right guests is only part of the picture and one could not but be impressed by the gusto with which the Duane/Morwood double act threw themselves into the programming; indeed it is eminently plausible that they had to bring some android avatars with them so as to be in several places at once.  Rhianna Pratchett was equally engaging and it was very pleasing that the focus was very much kept on her own achievements and avoided the (presumable) temptation of reminiscing on those of her late father.

Often I seem to be the only Worm Ouroboros/Zimiamvia fan at a con so I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to ask Diane about her own interest, during the GoH speech Q&A.  It was an absolute pleasure to hear her enthuse about Lord Gro, Fiorinda and all the rest of Eddison’s wonderful characters, even if I got the sense that no-one else in the room bar the two of us had much idea of what she was talking about.  Of course Eddison’s cod-Elizabethan prose can be a barrier to the reader but like the lady said, there’s no better time to overcome that than the present, given the number of fantasy TV shows and movies that are now getting made and of course, with Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey, the Zimiamvian trilogy now has a ready made killer tag-line.

I went to a lot of the panels this year and the quality of the panellists was uniformly high.  Another nice innovation (I suppose it may have been done before but I only became aware of this year) was the Octocon table in the dealer’s room, where self published authors could deposit their works to be sold, in return for a modest fee.  Hopefully I’ll be availing of this facility next year, if my Irish Tales is ready on schedule.

The con did make one inexplicable choice.  Obviously someone decided it would be a good thing to give 2016 the theme of Rebellion on foot of it being the centenary of the Rising.  This was a fine idea BUT WHERE WAS THE CORRESPONDING PROGRAMME THREAD???  Of course there’s only one of me and I can’t attend everything – maybe there were panels that dealt with this that I didn’t go to, in which case my apologies.  But surely it wouldn’t have been too much to expect one dedicated, so-named panel on the Rising and Republicanism in SF&F, to convey the re-creation of the shelling of the Four Courts from Pigeon Irish, Jack O’Halloran’s flying suit from A Modern Daedalus and much more to a new generation of readers.

[Update: 17/10, 14:00: Octocon has pointed out to me that a panel on the above was initially planned but fell through and that two panels I didn’t attend – Dystopia & YA and Space Opera included discussions on Rebellion.]

Irish Speculative Fiction Writers: James Stephens (1880 (or 82) – 1950)

The heart of James Stephens’ speculative fiction lies in five works, written over a dozen years, during the most turbulent period of Ireland’s history.

Two distinct strands run through them: Irish mythology and folklore in Irish Fairy Tales (1920),  Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924) and the interactions of gods and men in The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914).

Stephens, a colossus in his heyday, is almost forgotten today outside of our airports, where The Crock of Gold lurks, waiting to be snapped up by those kinds of tourist who cherish video-footage of their spouses taken at the leprechaun crossing around the back of Torc Mountain.

This encapsulates part of the reason for his fall; the perceived cod-Oirishery of The Crock of Gold, 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 represents a truly 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.

The Demi-Gods revisits this territory; the eponymous threesome descending to Earth to visit a tinker and his daughter[1].

On the Irish mythology and folklore side, Stephens was a considerable scholar and it is his total command of his subject that sets works like Deirdre and In the Land of Youth a country mile apart from all the other volumes of “retellings” that every republican mover and shaker around that time felt it necessary to have on his or her CV.  Well that and the fact that he was a very fine writer indeed.  Here’s an excerpt from Deirdre (the culmination of her fateful encounter with Naoise):-

They stopped perforce, with that feeling of tremendous discouragement wherein passion sinks back upon itself, where desire ceases and nothing is instant but weariness.  His hand yet held her, but it gripped no longer: it lay on her arm a dead weight: she had only to move an inch and it would fall away: she had but to turn and he would not follow her even with his eyes; but the energy which had drained from him flooded into her in one whirling stream, and when his hand fell away hers took up the duty it relinquished.

To my mind, it’s the greatest Irish fantasy novel of all time.

As for the rest of the reason for Stephens’ fall, like so many other staunch republican Protestants, Stephens was marginalised and ultimately excluded by the profoundly Catholic character in which Pearse and his supporters clothed the Rising and its aftermath.   It is no wonder that in questionable health and with a young family to support, Stephens threw in the towel and decamped to England in 1925.  After a decade-long struggle to earn a living lecturing he later compounded his ‘treachery’ by going to work for the BBC at a time when it was still seen as the mouthpiece of the ‘enemy[2]’.

Postscript: Bitches Have Nothing To Do With It, Mr. Gaiman

Before finishing with Stephens, its worth commenting on a parallel with a current fantasy controversy.

When James Joyce was writing Finnegan’s Wake he made a deal with Stephens (Joyce had just read Deirdre and was hugely impressed by it) to complete it for him, if he (Joyce) should die before finishing it.  I don’t believe Joyce was thinking about his readers: all he cared about was safeguarding his literary legacy.  Of course the readers get a finished book out of it but that’s nothing to do with the reason why Joyce made the arrangement with Stephens in the first place.

Fast forward ninety years or so to George R.R. Martin; the ‘American Tolkien,’ one of Time‘s top 100 persons a couple of years back and the man more than any other who put the gritty realism and grey ambiguity into fantasy.  It’s an entirely legitimate question, therefore, to ask one of such stature what he is doing to plan for the completion of A Song of Ice and Fire if he should die first, thereby safeguarding his literary legacy.

The fact that we can’t ask this question to him, is because it is now inextricably linked with the issue of reader gratification, thanks to an ill-thought-out intervention by respected commentator Neil Gaiman.

The question is nothing to do with bitches, Mr. Gaiman; Martin should be planning for this for the same reason Joyce did and no other – to safeguard his literary legacy.  That the fans get their fix too is nothing more than happenstance.

[1] It achieved notoriety more obliquely, being one of the subject panels of Harry Clarke’s Geneva Window, one of Ireland’s greatest works of art, in any medium and of any era, which was notoriously disowned by the State and now resides in a private collection in Florida.

[2] The late Terry Wogan spoke of receiving the same vilification almost thirty years later.

Irish Speculative Fiction Writers: Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862)

Fitz-James O’Brien is almost certainly the only Irish speculative fiction writer to have died of injuries suffered in the American Civil War.  Cork born, he emigrated to the US in his mid twenties and started writing for publications such as Harpers soon after arriving.  Having at one time served in the British army it is perhaps no surprise that he enlisted in the 7th regiment of the New York National Guard, soon after the Civil War began.  He was shot in the arm during a skirmish in February 1862 and having contracted tetanus in the wound, died in Cumberland, Maryland a month or so later.

His speculative fiction reputation rests upon a number of short stories, the most well known of which is The Diamond Lens (1858).  A curious mix of microscopy primer, Poe and Dr. Seuss, with a dash of the gleeful anti-Semitism that marks it of its time thrown in for good measure, it tells the tale of self-taught microscopist Linley, who obtains the design of the ultimate lens from Leeuwenhoek, no less, via a séance.  When opportunity knocks, he coldly murders Jewish jeweller Simon to obtain the large diamond he owns, covering his tracks via a locked room subterfuge.  He then constructs the eponymous lens and with the resulting instrument, discovers the world of a microscopic ‘woman,’ whom he names Animula.  Needless to say, he becomes obsessed and it all ends badly.

His other stories include What Was It (1859) – one of the very first treatments of invisibility; From Hand to Mouth (1858) which critic Sam Moskowitz called “the single most striking example of surrealistic fiction to pre-date Alice in Wonderland;” the Lovecraftian The Lost Room (1858)which plays out a bit like The Outsider in reverse and last but not least, The Wondersmith (1859).  This egregiously racist, madcap yarn, tells of a group of Grinch-like super villains who plan to take over the United States at Christmas by killing all the children with animated, envenomed toys.  It reminded me of Paul Feval’s Les Habits Noirs series which dates from 1863.  One wonders if Feval knew of O’Briens tale.

O’Brien’s early death undoubtedly robbed the literary world of someone who could have gone on to write much more in the vein of Poe and Lovecraft.  There is plenty of evidence from his few stories that in his treatments of obsession and alienation and in his handling of the tropes of horror, the policier and science fiction that O’Brien would have matched them in what he achieved.