WorldCon, the annual gathering of the world’s science-fiction fans, will take place in the Republic of Ireland for the first time this year. Some might think that an odd choice: Ireland’s magnificently rich literary tradition, until recently, produced almost no science fiction. (Jack Fennell’s fascinating new anthology, A Brilliant Void, gathers the best of the little there was.) That historical lack is unsurprising: Ireland, occupied and then treated as a huge farm by the British, missed out on both the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution – both vital for science fiction’s early development. (Belfast, which did experience the industrial revolution, produced the Titanic, Shorts aircraft, the DeLorean … and excellent science-fiction writers like James White, Bob Shaw and Ian McDonald, throwing the Republic’s lack of same into high relief.)
The genre may have jolted fully to life in 1818 with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it was American writers who then most enthusiastically used it to explore the future, partly because America had so little past to play with. Irish writers had a different problem: far too much past, and the unresolved traumas that past came with.
But lately, Irish novelists have indeed begun to write science fiction. Why? Partly because, after the Belfast Agreement, after the Ryan report into clerical sex abuse, after becoming the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, after the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and legalisation of abortion, we have finally begun to deal with many of those old traumas. Ireland, at last, feels like a country that has a future, rather than just a past.
There’s a more universal reason, too: in recent years, worldwide, from Tokyo to Tipperary, science fiction and real life have essentially merged. And this technological transformation has been particularly startling for Ireland.
My parents grew up in rural Tipperary, without electricity. Now, they casually FaceTime me in Berlin, using the Star Trek communicators they pack in their pockets. My father, as a teenager, milked seven cows by hand; it took much of the morning. Now my cousin John Paul has an automated milking parlour. Cows wander in, 20 at a time; one man rinses the shite off their udders, and slips the teats into the suction cups; from then on, a series of pumps, pipes, pressure sensors and electronic gadgets take over to gently milk the cows (as they eat from their automated feed troughs), sensing when the milk is gone, disengaging the suction cups and rinsing out the pipes, before motors withdraw the robotic machinery to safety. It looks like a lost scene from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange showing where the milk in the Korova Milk Bar comes from.
Ireland’s recent mad leap, straight from the late middle ages into the 21st century, from hand-milking to robots, has put a weird kink in our psyches that is now feeding through into our literature, leading to some of the most interesting Irish writing in years.
Of course, Ireland’s writers had first to deal with one final traumatic obstacle: Dublin. The city had so many centuries of literature – layer upon layer of literary silt – that it was hard to stride free of it and into the future. (The problem goes back a long way: it’s more than a century since Joyce wrote about an Ireland that was stuck in the mud of history, unable to change, with Dublin the centre of the paralysis.)
Thus the new wave of Irish writers had to destroy Dublin in order to allow their futuristic fictions to live. Kevin Barry was an early pioneer: his City of Bohane (2011) is set entirely in the imaginary city of Bohane, in the year 2053, with not a single mention of Dublin in the book. In Sarah Maria Griffin’s poetic Spare and Found Parts (2016), it’s 600 years from now; Dublin has fallen apart and lost its name. Ten-thousand survivors live in what they call Blackwater City, and Griffin’s story is off and running into the future, free of the past. Danny Denton, in a nice Irish touch, uses apocalyptic rain to wash Dublin away. In his romantic noir dystopia The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow (2018) it has been raining without a break for centuries: “The lower-ground floor had been all shops in the old days, but that was under four feet of water now.”And in Sarah Davis-Goff’s thrilling new post-apocalyptic novel, Last Ones Left Alive (2019), Dublin has once more fallen apart, and lost its old name: a few survivors live in the ruins of what has come to be called Phoenix City, but the action takes place elsewhere.
I, too, faced the problem of too much Irish history, literary and otherwise, when writing my most recent novel, Connect. And so I swapped Ireland for the desert landscapes of Nevada, and Dublin for Las Vegas, a pop-up city with almost no history at all. A bright, blank backdrop, against which my fictional dysfunctional family could all the more vividly fall apart. (Then again, Nevada, like McGahern’s unchanging, timeless Leitrim, is a blank canvas that gets richer the more you stare at it.)
Like the other de-Dublinised works I’ve mentioned, Connect is still, at its core, an Irish novel. It tells a story John McGahern would recognise: how love gets bent out of shape in one generation, and how the task of the next is to fix that. The heroine might be a Chinese-American research biologist, but she is also Catholic, with all that brings to the fictional table. The difficult, dominating father is called Ryan (a fine Tipperary surname, repurposed in America to a first name) because the Irish are a networked global diaspora now.
Barry, Griffin, and Davis-Goff all chose to destroy the internet, and most modern technology, in their post-apocalyptic futures. I, however, wanted to explore the ongoing, colossal impact of those technologies on us.
Describing a complex, technological near-future had odd literary consequences. Traditional Irish literary language, with its rich similes and surprising word choices, is usually used to defamiliarise familiar things; to make you see them fresh. This doesn’t work at all when describing a complicated, unfamiliar future. Unfamiliar things, defamiliarised, are impossible for the reader to see. As a result, I abandoned Irish literary language too, opting for a minimal, cinematic style with no similes, no metaphors, no flourishes; allowing the technology to be the poetry.
Book by book, we’re seeing that Irish literature finally has the headspace, the bandwidth, and the desire to face the future. That doesn’t mean history is over. Zombies still try to pull us into their darkness: witness last month’s murder of the young Irish writer Lyra McKee, by men obsessed with Ireland’s past. But we can’t and won’t go back: there is a future now, on this complicated island, in this complicated world, to be argued over, to be written into being; to be lived.
Julian Gough is the author of four novels, three children’s books, and the ending to the computer game Minecraft. His latest novel, Connect, is out now in paperback from Picador