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Genres in Scottish Writing: Science Fiction

Alan MacGillivray

The Bottle Imp 8:
Scottish Speculative Fiction
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, on the 20th December, 1825, in the hall of Anderson’s College, the principal citizens of Glasgow heard the President of the College, Doctor Ure, conclude his address with the confident prophecy that "the time is not far distant when chariots winged with fire shall be seen flying over metallic pavements through all the populous districts of the empire, transporting travellers and merchandise with amazing smoothness and velocity." The audience responded with enthusiastic applause. The words of Doctor Ure sound like a science fiction vision, and must have struck some of his less scientifically minded hearers as having the quality of fantasy. Yet it was all sober fact dressed in the colourful rhetoric of the public speaker. What Doctor Ure was doing in that technological institution that was the precursor of the University of Strathclyde where we are now meeting was, as the Glasgow Mechanics’ Magazine reported, delivering a ‘Lecture on the Steam Engine in aid of the Funds for erecting a Monument to James Watt’. Within a decade or two, Doctor Ure’s words had been proved. true and the age of the railways had begun.

Compare that prophetic vision with the inventiveness demonstrated nearly a decade earlier when in 1817 the young Scottish advocate, Thomas Erskine, in later life to become Lord Erskine and British Chancellor of the Exchequer, published a speculative utopian fiction, Armata, in which a ship sailing from New York to China is driven by storms into unknown waters and finds itself traversing a narrow and dangerous channel that connects the South Polar regions to a hitherto unsuspected satellite of Earth called Armata. This planet "had a ring like Saturn, which, by reason of our atmosphere, could not be seen at such an immense distance, and which was accessible only by a channel so narrow and so guarded by surrounding rocks and whirlpools, that even the vagrancy of modern navigators had never fallen in with it." Erskine clearly has a problem matching the wind-powered transport and the geographical and scientific knowledge of his time to the concept of interplanetary travel. What he imagined never had a chance of standing up against current and later astronomical discoveries and technological developments.

Both Doctor Ure of Anderson’s College and Thomas Erskine of the Scottish Faculty of Advocates were clearly possessed of the speculative cast of mind, the capacity for imaginative visualisation of future and alternative possibilities that is an indispensable characteristic of the science fiction writer. Whether or not the vision of such a thinker stands up to the onward march of science and technology is basically irrelevant.

All science fiction writing is ultimately bound to look quaint and naively mistaken as its conceptual basis and material furnishings are relegated to the Museum of Outmoded Mental Artefacts in the readers’ minds. The value of the writing is not primarily to be found in the continuing predictive possibility of its content but rather in the breadth and openness and freedom of the writer’s speculative imagination in relation to the prevailing mental set of his or her time and place.

Speaking as one who has been excited and encouraged ever since childhood by science fiction and other kinds of reality-transcending writing, I have been on many occasions surprised and occasionally depressed by the resistance and hostility expressed by many people to any writing that departs from or goes beyond realism. In extreme cases, it can be a dislike of any fiction as a kind of lying, an immoral activity; more usually, it takes the form of a preference for a literature of fact, a writing that represents the reality of life within conventional narrative patterns - no fantasy, no airy-fairy unrealistic fancies, no departure from the mundane and the prosaic. As we should all know, the fallacy of this way of thinking about writing lies in the impossibility of doing any kind of straight representation of life into literature. Everything that is written creatively involves an act of the imagination, in finding the best words, the best arrangement, the best presentation. The advice to beginning writers, "Write what you know", has always been inadequate: "Write what you can imagine" is the only possible advice to those who have aspirations beyond writing examination answers. And even there, as those of us who are teachers know, the best examination answers are those with an imaginative flair.

A more specific kind of resistance or hostility is directed against science fiction within the reading world. There is the widespread critical disdain for it as compared with the mainstream novel, whatever a ‘mainstream’ novel may be. Sometimes this disdain is justified on the grounds of quality, suggesting that science fiction is by its very nature inferior. Well, of course, there is a lot of science fiction junk around. There is also a lot of romance junk around, a lot of historical junk, a lot of crime story junk, a lot of mainstream junk. It was after all a science fiction writer who enunciated the well-known law. "90% of everything is garbage", although he didn’t say ‘garbage’. This impression of science fiction is often created by the company it has to keep on bookshop shelves. If under the heading SCI-FI/FANTASY, you find genuine science fiction having to consort with interminable sequences of Swords and Sorcery, sub-Tolkien fantasies, the never-ending spin-offs of the overrated Star Trek phenomenon, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (although I admire his clever cultural satires) and the horrors of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you might be forgiven for thinking that science fiction is not to be taken seriously. The truth is that it is those who think in terms of "sci-fi" who are not to be taken seriously. Take it as a good rule of thumb that whenever you come across somebody who talks or writes about science fiction as "sci-fi", you are dealing with somebody who basically has a low opinion of it and knows very little about it. The genuine science fiction aficionado will either give it its full name or abbreviate it to SF.

Let us be positive. Science fiction exists as a powerful duchy within the realm of literature. It may always have existed in some form, as the hard speculative end of imaginative narrative. If it did not exist, it would certainly have to be invented, particularly in an age that sees massive scientific and technological development. More than any other genre of fiction, it deals with systems and ideas rather than with people and emotions. It shows a major misunderstanding of science fiction to criticise it for not creating memorable characters or representing sensitive feelings. That is not its primary function. Science fiction is the only major literary genre that has as its upfront purpose the intention of speculating about where humanity is heading and how it is going to get there and what it is going to find when it arrives. The systems that operate or could operate within society, the scientific and technological ideas and devices either real or potential, these provide the mainsprings for a powerful, thoughtful and exciting fiction that is characteristic of the modern age. And if we Scots pride ourselves on being a thoughtful people, a nation with a philosophical tendency, a speculative society, guardians of the democratic intellect, then science fiction ought to come naturally to us as a readymade tool for our fictional expression. If Galt created the idea of the "theoretical history" in his social novels, other Scots writers could be creating "theoretical futures".

However, up to quite recent years, that has not been the case. It cannot be said that there has been any discernible continuous tradition of science fiction writing in Scotland through the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Within one of the most recent reference books on the subject, the Orbit Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, there are only about sixty-five entries relating to specifically Scottish writers who have produced science fiction novels and stories. There are probably more writers who are concealed under the general description of ‘UK writer’, but even so it hardly amounts to a major contribution to the genre when the Orbit Encyclopaedia contains over 4300 entries. Countries like Albania and the Czech Republic rate special entries for their science fiction achievement, but Scotland does not, and probably would not even if it were regarded separately from the UK. There are actually some significant Scottish writers rated as producers of science fiction but it is usually only a minor element within their total output. Arthur Conan Doyle, James Leslie Mitchell, Neil Gunn, James Kennaway, Eric Linklater, George MacDonald, Compton Mackenzie, Naomi Mitchison, and Robert Louis Stevenson all rate an entry, yet we would not think of any of them as being primarily a writer of SF. We are on more certain ground when we come across entries on Paul Barnett (or John Grant), Robert Barr, Hamish Blair, Michael Elder, Sheila MacLeod, Paul McTyre, Angus MacVicar, Donald Malcolm, Graham Martin, David Masson, David Pringle, Michael Scott Rohan, Eric Temple Bell (or John Taine), and a fair number of others. These are the more dedicated or prolific writers of science fiction, but the average reader’s reaction to hearing most of these names might well be "Who?" The profile of science fiction writers within Scotland has not hitherto been high.

Yet, over the years since the Second World War, there have been a number of significant initiatives. In the 1950s, Scotland had its own dedicated science fiction magazine: from 1952 to 1959, Nebula ran for 41 issues, published by Crownpoint Publications in Glasgow until 1955, and then by Peter Hamilton. It regularly published science fiction novels and, of course, short stories. In more recent years, the efforts of Duncan Lunan here in Glasgow in the 1980s produced a number of Science Fiction Conferences sponsored by the Glasgow Herald, and accompanying short story competitions. Out of these came the anthology, Starfield: Science Fiction by Scottish Writers (1989), with all its limitations still the only specific Scottish collection of SF to be published. It has not been a rich imaginative harvest.

And yet, in spite of this, somehow, we are now in the fortunate position of having two of the foremost writers of science fiction on the contemporary scene living and writing here in Scotland. Mention the names of Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod anywhere in the SF fraternity worldwide, and the recognition of the names will be instant. The two men are closely linked, indeed they may be said to have come out of the same writing stable, in this case the classrooms of Greenock High School, where they were at school together in the late 60s and early 70s. Iain Banks is the senior in terms of writing and publishing achievement and success. Ken MacLeod has been to some extent his protégé and has come more recently on to the writing scene. Yet the quality of his work so far bids fair to ultimately rival, if not surpass, that of Banks.

Banks and MacLeod between them have produced a very substantial body of work within a reasonably brief time. While tending to alternate his science fiction with his mainstream novels, Banks has published seven SF novels and a novella in the space of thirteen years, although one or two of these were written early and remained unpublished until he gained literary status with novels like The Wasp Factory. MacLeod has published a powerful sequence of four novels in the five years since 1995. Despite their closeness and apparent similarity of upbringing, their approaches to science fiction are very different, and the imaginative worlds they have created are fundamentally dissimilar.

All of Banks’ SF novels except two are concerned with his massive concept of The Culture. It would take far longer than we have here today to explore and clarify this immense imaginative construct within which the novels operate. From the earliest, Consider Phlebas, to the most recent, Inversions, the context is that of a vast group civilisation of humanoid species within a nine-thousand year old federation living in space and employing the resources of the most advanced technologies and artificial intelligences to maintain a free-living, free-thinking richly-supplied yet tolerant and benign life-style. Banks has written at length on his fictional universe in the file, "A Few Notes on The Culture", obtainable on the Internet from various sites (see below). It is space-opera of the most expansive and encompassing kind, ranging through a galaxy of many life-supporting stars and planets with the freedom and ease to be found in the great media projects of Star Wars, Babylon 5, Space 1999, Blake’s Seven, etc., but with an even greater scope and inventiveness. The Earth hardly figures in this space-time configuration, only meriting consideration within the novella, The State of the Art.

By contrast, the fiction of Ken MacLeod is firmly Earth-centred. His four novels, The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road, deal with the future of human society on the Earth from the 1970s on into the three or four centuries following, covering the success and failure of the Space movement and the breakdown of nation states and industrial capitalism. Unlike Banks, who keeps Scotland as a location and inspiration for his mainstream novels, MacLeod has used Scotland consistently within his science fiction, as the place out of which came originally the three key figures in the shaping of the new Earth and its Space Movement, and as the place fuelling the new drive to a space future after several centuries. It is specifically Glasgow, focused on Glasgow University, and the district of Lochcarron in Wester Ross that MacLeod uses, presumably for personal reasons. So on the face of it, MacLeod is more explicitly a Scottish science fiction writer than Banks in terms of the furniture of his novels.

Yet this is obviously an over-simplification. Both Banks and MacLeod write out of a clearly Scottish sensibility, in that both of them are reacting against the settled assumptions of the traditional tendencies in both English and American science fiction in ways that we have come to associate with the mainstream of Scottish realistic fiction. Of course, they have been writing during a time of general reaction within the SF genre against the increasingly tired-looking patterns of science fiction as published in the magazines and for the popular market. The 1980s saw the rise of the Cyberpunk movement associated particularly with the writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Gibson especially created the cyberpunk world, dominated by global networks of information, the Matrix of virtual reality. In this world, visually anticipated in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, the nation states and long-established political groupings, weakened by war and economic collapse, were succumbing to commercial cartels and extremist factions and the typical human organisations were, on the one hand, the sprawling mega-city of mean streets and climatic adversity, and, on the other hand, the high-tech combines looking outward from Earth. Artificial Intelligence ultimately ruled, though mostly unseen. Those of you who have read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark will recognise the scenario as resembling Gray’s nightmare visions of the City of Unthank, the anonymous ruling Council, and the android ruling Artificial Intelligence, Lord Monboddo.

Both Banks and MacLeod inherit this world-picture. Banks is rebelling, on his own say-so, against the simplistic rightwing patriotic assumptions of Cold-War-haunted American science fiction, seen in their full horror in the sentimentalities of Star Trek and Star Wars, and has created a left-leaning socialist high-technology libertarian utopia in the Culture. MacLeod is more overtly political in the contemporary sense. In his analysis of the future three centuries, the heroes are the inheritors of twentieth-century International Socialism, and the villains are, at least initially until their overthrow, a United States attempting to police the world with nuclear power, allied to a Hanoverian Royalist reactionary Britain. In both Banks and MacLeod, Artificial Intelligence dominates, but whereas MacLeod sees it as something to be combated, Banks sees it as ultimately the great ally and partner of humanity against ignorance, prejudice and superstition. I believe there is something of a Scottish ideal in both of these stances. MacLeod seems to be articulating as a constant in human life the Burnsian theme of "A man’s a man for a’ that" within a shifting political spectrum; Banks, more philosophically, is championing the claims of the intellect, an enhanced and scientifically-aided collective intellect, against forces of irrational reaction and violence.

If Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod are the SF icons of the moment, this is a great literary coup for Scottish writing, one on which new writers ought to build for the future. With the example of their literary and critical success before their eyes, aspiring writers of science fiction in Scotland can explore a wide range of exciting possibilities. A large proportion of contemporary science fiction is aware of pressing environmental issues, a kind of eco-science fiction. Scottish writers can find a starting point for a lot of speculative writing in the landscapes and seascapes surrounding them. Hugh MacDiarmid wrote of the infinite diversity of Scotland within its apparent smallness; the richness of Scotland as a literary subject has hardly begun to be exploited. A fiction that continually is fixated on poverty is ultimately stagnant and uninspiring; the virtue of the best science fiction is that it has always seen science and technology as the keys that unlock the riches of the earth and that release humanity from an apparently limiting environment. It is for Scottish writers to apply this to their own land. The main need is for a shift in perspective, from a pessimistic inward-looking and backward-focused stance to an optimistic outward and forward prospect. The virtue of the cyberpunk fashion, which now seems to be passing in its more extreme manifestations, was that it did not adopt a moral standpoint in relation to its subject-matter. It did not look at the urban Sprawl of a declining capitalist system, the disorientating complexity of a computer-generated virtual reality and information overload, the force of a nonhuman super-intelligence, as being things to condemn out of a fear of the new and the shock of change. The protagonists of this new wave science fiction inhabit their complex new world like fish in their natural element, the great sea. So it should be for our new writers and their creations. All that is to come has to be welcomed, or at least accepted with a clear head, if we are to avoid being whingeing misfits in reality. This new fiction, and maybe I am not speaking only of science fiction, has to be more political, more analytical of society and government, in a way that Scottish writing has hardly been for several generations. For too long Scottish writing has either ignored the political reality surrounding us, or uttered an unredeemed whine about its unchangeable unfairness or inequality. That will no longer do, and if we can learn from the best science fiction that the systems that enclose us, the ideas that direct our society, are legitimate subjects for informed imaginative analysis and speculation, the healthier will our literary and social climate become.

I think there are some basic needs that we should start thinking about meeting in the near future. We need a secure and regularly-appearing magazine devoted to science fiction and to related speculative writing. This is certainly a need so long as the existing literary magazines fight shy of publishing SF. We need to have more science fiction writers’ groups as part of the network of writers’ workshops and clubs throughout Scotland. Perhaps this needs a degree of co-ordination with a national steering group overseeing the provision under the auspices of local authorities and academic institutions. In connection with such a drive to encourage writing at all levels, it ought to be unnecessary to refer specifically to choice of language. At this conference, everything we have been saying has been understood to apply to all the languages of Scotland. Gaelic, Scots and English can be the natural and acceptable choice for any writer in any kind of writing. In science fiction, we should not be limited solely to English as our possible means of expression. There has been some science fiction written in Gaelic for young readers; equally it can be the chosen language for more adult SF. Scots also, in any of its varieties, is as suitable a form as any other; some years ago, I wrote a science fiction story in Medieval Scots, but I wouldn’t hold that up as a model, only as an indication that the most unexpected things are possible in this flexible genre.

Moving on, we need more critical attention to be paid to science fiction in the columns of the quality press, regular reviewing of new science fiction and popular but informed articles instead of the occasional half-baked superficialities of ill-informed journalists. And we certainly need a more recognised place for science fiction in college and university courses in Scotland, with encouragement of research at a postgraduate level. None of these needs can be met instantly, but some planning should start as soon as possible by interested and committed parties.

J.B.S. Haldane, the elder brother of the late Naomi Mitchison, himself a writer of some science fiction like his sister, as well as being a biologist and significant thinker, propounded Haldane’s Law, which states: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." We cannot foresee the future of science fiction. Perhaps the future of the genre as we know it is in some doubt. How can we continue to try to domesticate a universe that is continually expanding, that seems more and more to be on a scale and of a nature that defeats the human capacity to encompass it. Is it only by stale fictional conventions and pseudo-science that we can fetter it to our imaginations? These doubts have been seriously expressed. I believe that there will continue to be a future for science fiction. Perhaps the contribution of Scottish writers as comparative newcomers to this field in significant numbers can be as a characteristic voice in rediscovering the realities of science and technology in the context of literature, and writing an unsentimental pragmatic fiction focused on humanity’s real needs and aspirations within a neutral yet unintimidating universe.

Presented at the ASLS Annual Conference, 14 May 2000


Copyright © Alan MacGillivray 2000


Last updated 10 March 2011.