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Irish science fiction: why we should take it seriously

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ may well be a cornerstone of the science fiction genre

Sci-fi often pretends to be history.

Paul Campbell, in a light-hearted piece for the Linen Hall Review, once gave a brief sum-up of some notable science fiction works, and concluded that there was “no such thing as Irish science fiction, since science fiction, as a prerequisite to being itself, must transcend the parochial”.

However, this is a misunderstanding of how the genre works. Scientific discoveries generally find their way into the public imagination through analogy, metaphor or simplification. The best-known example of this now is “global warming” – a short-hand term for the alarming trend of anthropogenic climate change. Science fiction takes this tendency and runs with it, making all kinds of hypotheticals literal and extrapolating what the result might look like. No culture, be it global or local, has a monopoly on that kind of imaginative strategy – and this is important, because there are very real benefits to engaging with the genre.

Sci-fi is different from horror and fantasy in the way it presents itself as being consonant with history as we know it. When we watch Star Trek, for example, we see lots of things that are simply impossible according to the laws of physics as we understand them today – an object with mass just cannot travel faster than the speed of light. However, the series gets over that hump by setting the stories hundreds of years into the future: time marches on, history keeps going, and it is implied that eventually, someone will invent a work-around. Thus, sci-fi “pretends to be history” and if we follow historians’ lead in describing history as the study of causes, then this encompasses not just causality but probability. It doesn’t have to take place centuries into the future, as long as it presents its weirdness as being “natural” rather than supernatural. Whatever you’re looking at, there is some kind of logic at work behind it.

A good science fiction story will avoid front-loading a heap of exposition to establish the narrative world, opting instead to let it be narrated “from within” according to the characters’ own standards of relevance. After all, Buck Mulligan does not interrupt the opening paragraph of Ulysses to inwardly ponder the purpose of stairheads, mirrors and razors, so why would the inhabitant of a science-fictional world pause to explain something that is equally mundane to them? This is one of the main stumbling blocks for people who don’t like the genre: stories full of made-up words with no explanation or real-world referent. However, this is precisely where the advantages of reading sci-fi emerge.

Hypothetical ‘time phone’

One of my favourite tools for teaching sci-fi is a hypothetical “time phone” with which one could communicate with someone living in the 1920s. What meaning would a receiver in, say, 1928 infer from the sentence, “John shuffled his iPod and listened to the Rolling Stones”? To someone without our frame of reference, the first image to spring to mind might be pure nonsense – a young man calmly listening to an avalanche while shaking a pea-pod full of eyeballs – but given enough time, we can assume that the listener would be able to work out that the Rolling Stones are a band, and that an iPod is a device for listening to music. This is what the esteemed science fiction critic Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement”: the reader understands that there is a coherent context behind it all, waiting to be deciphered. Thus, every science fiction story is also a detective story, to an extent.

Buck Mulligan does not interrupt the opening paragraph of Ulysses to inwardly ponder the purpose of stairheads, mirrors and razors

This kind of reading is a transferable skill. As an adjunct lecturer at the University of Limerick, I have been called upon to teach on a wide variety of topics across a wide range of classes. Practically everything I’ve been asked to teach is outside my research specialty – Irish science fiction – but it is because of that specialty that I’ve never felt overwhelmed or intimidated by unfamiliar fields. It has also informed my attitude to unfamiliar things more generally: who cares if this book, that film, that style of music, this food isn’t the kind of thing you’re normally into? Jump in anyway; take it on faith that there’s a stable paradigm underpinning this strange new thing, and figure it out as you go. The worst that can happen is that you’ll remain unconvinced, but if it pays off, you will have added a whole new texture to the world as you know it.

So, what about Irish sci-fi, then? Well, one could also argue that we contributed directly to the emergence of the “standard” genre. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift might look like topsy-turvy nonsense, but several critics have pointed out that underneath the giants and little people and talking horses, there are mathematical in-jokes woven into the story. Swift combined strange imagery with just enough scientific know-how to give it texture, but his “axis of probability”, for lack of a snappier term, was physical space, which was only tenable while the planet wasn’t yet fully explored and mapped. Another Irishman, Edmund Burke, changed this with his ruminations on the idea of the “sublime” – an overwhelming experience that reminds you of how small you are in the big scheme of things, and opens up the vast span of history for consideration. Whereas in Swift’s day anything could happen if given enough distance, the dominant paradigm of sci-fi now is that anything can happen if given enough time. Setting all that to one side, though, we already know that different cultures produce distinctive literatures, and genre material is no different in that respect.

National identity

The Japanese sci-fi author and critic Kôichi Yamano argued that national identity is not significant in itself – the historically-determined subjectivity of a people, on the other hand, gives rise to specific literary personalities. British sci-fi, he found, was a literature of “rational idealism”, whereas Polish authors were more concerned with philosophical materialism and Germans produced works of “pure ideology”. In Japan, sci-fi was as alien as the prefabricated houses that appeared during the American occupation, and Japanese writers initially imitated American material, with so-so results; the solution was to absorb the western tropes into a Japanese subjectivity – or, to put it another way, to redecorate the genre’s prefabricated house. This is, in fact, what sci-fi authors do all over the world.

The historically-determined subjectivity of a people gives rise to specific literary personalities

Andrea Bell’s research indicates that Latin American science fiction generally has a tendency towards cross-genre hybridisation, usually features hostile urban environments and marginalised protagonists, and has a “comic book feel” influenced by action movies, manga and luchadores (masked Mexican wrestlers). M Elizabeth Ginway, focusing on Brazilian sci-fi, finds a rich tradition in which “standard’” tropes such as aliens, robots and cyborgs are blended with local viewpoints to tell stories about Brazil politics and society. Juan C Toledano Redondo, meanwhile, has researched the popularity of cyberpunk fiction in Cuba extensively, linking it to political dissatisfaction with both socialism and capitalism, and interpreting it as an expression of anarchist utopianism.

Luchadores, Brazilian comic books and Cuban anarchism, for all their merits, have little “universal” significance, and neither do they pose “universal” issues; they are definitely parochial. Part of what makes these things fascinating and beautiful is their parochial nature, though; they are emergent phenomena within different matrices of history, politics, philosophy and legend. This is the kind of thing that sci-fi fans have known for ages, and it’s an idea that should be brought into the wider public consciousness. Who says the boundless vistas of sci-fi have to be the exclusive domain of the current global superpowers? “Parochialism” is only a demerit if we assume that there’s something embarrassing or defective about our culture; surely, by now, we have more pride in ourselves than that.

A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction edited by Jack Fennell and published by Tramp Press will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on Saturday, November 17th at 6.30pm in the Gutter Bookshop, Dublin