A Brief History of Irish Science Fiction
This week I addressed the annual Nordic Irish Studies Network conference in Aalborg University, Denmark (the 2014 theme: ‘Ireland and the Popular’). My presentation was derived from my current research on the topic of Irish Science Fiction (as distinct from Fantasy) which has already born fruit in a well received article on Flann O’Brien and Science Fiction as well as an extensive piece on Mike McCormack and his work.
As part of the presentation, I proposed that Science Fiction in an Irish context serves as a crucial if neglected bridge between ‘folk culture’ and ‘mass culture’, between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’. I sought to present Irish SF as a space of extraordinary, multi-faceted encounters between readers and imagined developments in science, a space in which meanings of identity, history, gender, sexuality, and subjectivity are problematized. The presentation aimed to show that, with the nation’s long history of strange visitors and contentious futures, there is a great deal in Irish literature identifiable as Science Fiction (hardly a shock to those of us who read and write SF, but often a surprise to those with narrower literary or scholarly perspectives). Indeed, if there were ever a cultural and historical context which lent itself towards alternative histories or alien invasions, it is Ireland’s.
The through-line of the presentation was an effort to construct system of periodization for Irish Science Fiction, a system loosely based on the above image (my first slide) which is modified from one of the graphics NASA uses to explain the expansion of the universe: Here our ‘Big Bang’ is the emergence of pseudo-scientific themes from the Irish fantasy tradition in the mid-nineteenth century; it is followed by the afterglow of fantasy during the Irish Literary Revival (or, if you prefer, the Celtic Twilight; a neat stand-in for the Cosmic Microwave Background insofar as its presence permeates Irish writing ever after); ‘The Dark Ages’ then, a time before the first stars (genre or otherwise) and, in our case, an era when the imaginative resources of the nation were occupied by the independence struggle or constrained by the single narrative of de Valera’s Ireland; this period arguably continued until the emergence of post-war technological narratives in the aftermath of authors like Flann O’Brien (think The Third Policeman, and, especially, The Dalkey Archive); finally then we have the era of rapid expansion from the 1980s to the present, where contemporary writers such as Mike McCormack, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Neil Jordan, and even John Banville regularly combine literary and genre styles in a manner which would be identified as ‘Slipstream’ in the US.
It’s not a perfect fit, but it certainly provided a great way of beginning the conversation about the evolution of the genre. Discussion afterwards circled around the idea of how science in Ireland was, for a long time, associated with the Anglo-Irish (or, if you prefer, with the Protestant, the British, the ‘Alien’) and how this may have stymied its percolation into fiction. This has particular relevance to the ‘Dark Ages’ and how SF themes struggled to break through in the Irish writing of, say the 1920s and 1930s. The question of the Ardnacrusha Hydroelectric Scheme was raised but, of course, this too was “alien” science, in that case originating from Germany. Mind you, the Ardnacrusha project did have interesting knock-on effects and, as one of the other conference participants revealed in their presentation (I love when there’s unexpected conference synergy like that), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was screened twice a week in Limerick for a time due to demand from the German workers on the hydro plant project. It hints at the consumption if not the production of Science Fiction in Ireland at the time, as well as at a parallel history of engineering and technology which didn’t necessarily break through into the writing of the day (there are, naturally, small-scale exceptions which I intend to discuss as part of the larger project as it progresses).
Of course, my research on this subject is very much a work-in-progress (UPDATE: And the final form of this project perhaps needs to be re-thought in light of upcoming publications on the subject by some other scholars; which, honestly, I look forward to reading!). Recent developments (discussed as part of my NISN presentation) include the need to acknowledge the ongoing impact of the Fantasy tradition in this country, particularly in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The Celtic Tiger, for example, was essentially an “economic” fantasy: it operated according to a series of shifting and seemingly arbitrary rules and it promised the nation a series of “magical” transformations in exchange for what, if one felt melodramatic, might be termed our souls. I had expected to find, when I first began this work, that the Tiger’s collapse would lead to more post-apocalyptic Irish fictions (such as Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, 2011) but now acknowledge that the response to the current, difficult-to-comprehend crisis involves a new resurgence of the fantastical. Mind you, there’s a level on which I (biased as a science fiction fan) think this represents a failure to address the issues at the heart of our present upheavals. Contemporary novelists writing about ghosts is all well and good (and a lot of that work is good), but perhaps they ought to be writing about cyborgs instead? Consider, for just one example, how dependent our cities have become on Foreign Direct Investment, largely from companies in the sci-tech fields; and how, consequently, many of us now live in what are essentially cybernetic communities which, once the technological components are removed, face serious challenges to their (social) well-being.
With that in mind, I was pleased to be able to mention the Irish WorldCon bid for 2019 during my talk. Not only because it demonstrated a very clear example of Science Fiction as a popular genre in Ireland (and so was in keeping with the conference theme) but because the organizers are hoping to hold it in the Convention Centre in Dublin, a literal monument to the economic fantasy that was the Celtic Tiger; a temple poised to be claimed back for Science Fiction, the real literature of the now.
Other posts which may be of interest: