Scottish Writers Conquer the Universe!

a product of the scientific, engineering tradition on the one hand and the mystic Celtic background on the other, generating SF with a lyrical strand and fantasy with particularly strong backgrounds

Feature by Euan Andrews | 12 Nov 2006
The Science Fiction, or SF, genre is an ever changing beast, and right now there are plenty of authors in Scotland who are helping this change - or is it an evolution? The Scottish influence in this field is deeper and stranger than you might imagine…

To take one example: 'A Voyage to Arcturus' by David Lindsay is an odd and beautiful book, first published in 1920. It begins with a drawing-room seance before taking the reader on a journey aboard crystalline ships to the double star Arcturus and its lone planet Tormance to encounter a string of characters worthy of William Blake. On first issue, the fantasy was a total flop selling less than 600 copies. Since then, Lindsay's novel has gone on to be recognised as a major work of Scottish science fiction and fantasy, an influence on C S Lewis (who recommended it to a certain Mr Tolkien) and was recently republished in a deluxe edition by Savoy Books.

Writer Andrew J Wilson, co-editor of recent Mercat Press anthology 'Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction', regards it as an important bridge to modern Scottish SF. "While written in a clumsy prose style", comments Wilson, "it's a visionary work of the highest order." More recently, Wilson points out the influence of Alasdair Gray "who had a tremendous impact on Scottish SF with 'Lanark'. He demonstrated that a Scottish writer could break out of the prison of realism many Scottish mainstream writers had become trapped in". Gray's fantastical depiction of Scottish society and history also influenced Hal Duncan, Glasgow-based author of 2005's 'Vellum'. According to Duncan, "Scotland is pretty central. I use Glasgow a lot - because it's a fascinating city, culturally and politically, to the extent of having whole sections of 'Vellum' set around the Red Clyde, or in alternative versions of the modern city."

Duncan also features in 'Nova Scotia', contributing 'The Last Shift' which details the final days of a working class community in an alternate Scotland. Nova Scotia generally serves well as a decent overview of the current state of Scottish SF writing. Other writers featured include Hannu Rajaniemai, Michael Cobley, Deborah J Miller and Jack Deighton and areas covered include magical fantasy, cyberpunk and 'hard' science fiction. According to Wilson and co-editor Neil Williamson, the premise for the writers was to "reimagine Scotland in the past, present and future."

Duncan Lunan, former SF editor for the Glasgow Herald and editor of Starfield, the first anthology of Scottish SF in the late 1980s, considers Scottish SF to be "a product of the scientific, engineering tradition on the one hand and the mystic Celtic background on the other, generating SF with a lyrical strand and fantasy with particularly strong backgrounds. In the 1960s, when I first became involved, most bookshops didn't stock SF books but there was a small Glasgow-based underground of fans who told one another about those which did. This led to the formation of the Glasgow SF circle, after which Scottish fandom became more active and started holding conventions. By then, there were more writers in the field such as myself, Alasdair Gray, Angus McAllister and the late Chris Boyle."

If there is a Scottish SF 'scene' as such, then the two most visible writers within it have to be Iain M Banks and Ken Macleod. Banks, in particular, has successfully married diverging careers as a writer of both mainstream fiction and hard SF. Most of his SF novels since 1987's 'Consider Phlebas' concern themselves with The Culture, a vast universe-spanning civilisation of highly intricate detail. Involving far-flung futures, interstellar travel, artificial intelligences and astral societies, Banks' SF novels have no obvious precedent in Scottish literature and owe much to the work of SF legends such as Brian Aldiss and Isaac Asimov. Ken Macleod's novels, particularly the Fall Revolution cycle which began with 1995's Prometheus Award winning 'The Star Fraction', engage with a more political future view of Earth set towards the end of the 21st century and incorporating the moral use of Artificial Intelligence within social revolution.

The latest Scottish-based writer receiving acclaim is Leeds-born Charles Stross, who recently received a Hugo Award for his 2005 novella 'The Concrete Jungle' as well as the 2006 Locus Award for best science fiction novel with his 'Accelerando'. Stross' work crosses genres; it has fantasy, and even horror influences within it. This range is a constant with all writers working in modern SF, which is now often categorised using the broader term 'Speculative Fiction'. As Hal Duncan says, " It's not so much that SF is about science or created in speculation: it's that it uses these strange ideas, these metaphorical conceits to dislocate the reader from the here and now, relocates them in an elsewhen that maps to our reality but in a twisted, transformed way. That act of twisting, transformation is exactly how SF addresses, focuses on, and abstracts those issues, making us see the unsettling aspects of the mundane world by looking at it, as Philip K Dick said, through a scanner darkly".