Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O’Brien’s Surprising Synthesis

Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXI #3

Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXI #3

Another recent publication I’m very happy to have out in the world is my essay ‘Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O’Brien’s Surprising Synthesis’ which has just been published in the Flann O’Brien centenary issue of the journal Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol. XXXI, #3; edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper).

The article examines Flann O’Brien’s writing as a unique form of speculative writing, a locus for the collision of Ireland’s rich fantasy tradition with the twentieth century’s idiom of science and technology . Since Einsteinian readings of O’Brien have been performed before, as have analyses of the author’s folkloric satires, this article is intended to complement existing scholarship by focusing on the synthesis of O’Brien’s scientific literacy and his struggle to reconcile such knowledge with mid-twentieth century Irish Catholicism, ‘the most developed and consistent manifestation of the fantasy tradition in this country’.

Central to this is an analysis of O’Brien’s De Selby character who, through his fantastical and technological irresponsibility, embodies both sides of the divide between tradition and modernity, and so challenges any clear distinction between the two. Functioning as a forward-looking, fake-scientist counterpart to that backward-looking, real-life mathematician and ‘other de’, Éamon de Valera, De Selby personifies O’Brien’s tongue-in-cheek combination of atomic theory, relativity, time travel, and ‘Omnium’ with parodic representations of spirituality, a project which culminates in The Dalkey Archive with De Selby’s attempts to use an artificial element to destroy the world in the name of God.

Using close examination of texts including The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive, this article demonstrates how O’Brien’s use of language and reference aims not to reject tradition but to incorporate aspects of Irish fantasy and religiosity into a new scientific age. In the aftermath of mass industrialisation, along with the World War and mooted nuclear destruction which characterised the era of The Third Policeman’s composition (and, later, the dystopian, post-War condition of Europe, let alone the Iron Curtain era in which The Dalkey Archive was written), O’Brien uses De Selby to satirise not only the rampant, destructive pace of change, but also a parochial Irish imagination to which all science is not just science fictional, but – to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke – ‘indistinguishable from magic’.

As ever, anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via their electronic resources, though if you’re having trouble with that or are beyond the paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, of course, but society and economics aren’t exactly there yet.

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