Irish Speculative Fiction

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.]