Irish Speculative Fiction

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.

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.’

It’s Time to Reclaim the Heritage of Irish Speculative Fiction

A dispiriting aspect of Shamrokon was the great disservice done to the heritage of Irish speculative fiction by at least one panel.

It would be easy to get into a huge (and ultimately self-defeating) rant over some of what was said. I should know, I started to write it – then ditched it. I realised that I had to accept that much of what, in my anger, I had begun to react to as ill-informed, dismissive claptrap, ought, more constructively, to be looked upon as a cry for help – a signal if you like that there is a body of basic Irish speculative fiction heritage out there, which every Irish SF, Fantasy & Horror fan and writer ought to be aware of, that is slowly being, if not lost then at least forgotten.

A decade or so ago, there were a number of good Irish resources out there on the web. They still come up in the first page or two if you Google ‘Irish Speculative Fiction.’ Unfortunately they no longer seem to be being maintained and many of the links are dead.

So where to begin? Well as a modest contribution to the cause, I’m going to start a series of pieces on Irish speculative fiction writers here in my blog.

Really though, I ought to draw attention to the work of the incomparable Nicholas Whyte, who has been writing on the subject for decades with more knowledge and skill than I will ever manage. His vast blog is here and as an example of what he sometimes writes about, here’s his piece from January 2014 on John Francis Maguire’s novel from 1871, The Next Generation, featuring a Westminster with Irish Home Rule and women MP’s, a Channel tunnel and a British invasion of China, in which plucky heroine, Irish MP and Liberal Chief Whip Grace O’Donnell, slugs it out with her Tory counterpart.  If I had one criticism of the blog it’s that the pieces are not very well tagged, so launching the ‘Irish SF’ tag, for example will only return a tiny fraction of what is there – you have to browse.

Nicholas Whyte also put together this Irish SF resource – not updated for about a decade but still utterly essential reading.

There is also a Pinterest board of Irish SF, Fantasy and Horror Writers (including folk tale and mythology collectors) run by Michael Scott (with a little help from Michael Carroll and myself) here.  The qualifying criterion is that a writer was either born on or lived on the island of Ireland.  That’s it.  There are none of the, quite frankly, ghastly, sub-qualifications, such as a writer having to be writing for an Irish audience and published within Ireland, that appeared to be emerging at Shamrokon.

A Few Observations on Irish Adult Speculative Fiction Publishing from Shamrokon

As a budding speculative fiction writer, one of the panels I attended with high expectations at Shamrokon was the one entitled Where are all the Irish Adult Speculative Fiction Novels?  Of course I was hoping to pick up some tips – whom I might submit to, what pitfalls to avoid and so forth.  But it was pretty dispiriting fare, in some cases because of the truisms ably articulated by the panellists and in other cases, unfortunately, owing to the, at times, rather limited world-views of those selfsame panellists.

On the positive side, we were told that Poolbeg and O’Brien were in hock to the Irish Arts Council up to their eyeballs and that if either as much dared to touch a genre novel, their senior executives would be dragged off to the Hill of Tara and water-boarded. At least I think that’s what was said.  For most of the hour I could only make out about one word in three from the panel, as the public body in question had apparently smuggled a banshee or two into the back of the room, no doubt in a forlorn attempt to keep the lid on this revelation.  Whatever, it was good to have the heads up.

Then we were seeded with the idea that Ireland, with its rich mythology and folklore, was a natural breeding ground for writers of a fantastic bent and that this could explain the rather lower incidence of home-grown speculative fiction writers.  Undoubtedly there’s a lot of truth in that, even if it’s hardly rocket science.  The token curmudgeon on the panel even aired the view that in times past, while the genre was emerging in other countries, there were no Irish speculative fiction writers at all in existence.  I wonder what the likes of John Francis Maguire, Fitz James O’Brien, Tom Greer, Francis Stuart or James Creed Meredith, to name but a few, would have made of that assertion!

Greer is an especially interesting case, which I’m going to elaborate on here, even though the panel said nary a word on him (yes OK, I’m sure it’s bad form to do that in a panel write-up, but, but…)  Whilst, for most wannabe Irish republicans of the time, the essential literary calling card was a volume on Irish legends (yet who now remembers the likes of Darrell Figgis or Ella Young), Greer took the technology route.  He was no doubt inspired by the work of the Fenian Brotherhood on submarine development (still the only example in history of, depending on your colour, freedom fighters or terrorists leading the way on the emergence of a major new weapons system) and came up with A Modern Daedalus, his story of the invention of a winged superhero suit with which the plucky republican hero visits destruction upon the evil British.

We heard, heard quite a lot actually, about how Young Adult speculative fiction is flourishing in Ireland and this was contrasted with the situation in corresponding the adult market.  In all cases though, what the panel was focussing on was the example of Irish writers being able to be published at home, which for YA at least, is a real option.  The overarching message seemed to be ‘Yes Irish Adult Speculative Fiction writers have been around for a while but they’ve had to and still have to go outside of Ireland to get published and that’s bad.’  Is it?  I’m not so sure.  If someone writing in English is published by an English language publisher then isn’t that good enough?  Have a séance with James White.  Ask Ian McDonald or Wayne Simmons.

In a truly Kafkaesque moment the publisher on the panel then admitted that he didn’t accept unsolicited submissions.  Gobsmacked by this, I later asked some of the small Irish presses in the dealers’ room what their policy was and yes, it does seem to be commonplace that submissions are by invitation only at our indigenous speculative fiction publishers (or as I now like to think of them ‘private glee clubs.’) The publisher has his cosy business model, the lucky insiders are doing all right, thanks mate and then we dare to bemoan that the rest of us have to look overseas.  Face.  Meet palm.

But it got worse.  There were a few oblique allusions to a misty, half-seen, Tir na Nogish sort of place called ‘Up North’ where things *hushed, vaguely unsettling tones* ‘Were Different.’  In general, no-one wanted to elaborate, although to be fair one panellist did put in a plug for the work of the excellent C.S. Kane.  During the questions at the end, I felt obliged to speak up for Blackstaff Press, publishers of Laurence Donaghy’s fine Folk’d trilogy and who actually *shock horror* Accept Adult Speculative Fiction Submissions.

All in all, then, a disappointing listen, and all recorded for posterity too, by the nice foreign gentleman with the yoke on the  tripod.