REVIEW: “The Exile” by Cathal Ó Sándair

Review of Cathal Ó Sándair, “The Exile” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 253-260 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The final story in this anthology was originally published 123 years after the first one — so far into the future of the early 19th C as to be almost unimaginable (though that didn’t prevent the early authors from trying!). The contrast between this story and the previous ones was marked: This one felt modern. This is in part because, although it was written in 1960, it is set in what is still the future of 2019. (Although it’s not our timeline, that’s for sure; we did not make contact with the Selenites, those who live on the moon, in 2007 as happened in this story.)

Seán Murphy was a young man when he first read an advertisement in the paper calling for young men to emigrate to the Moon. Despite his mother’s desires, and promising to come back within 5 years, Seán went. But when his mother died before the five years was up, there was — for many years at least — no reason for him to return home, no reason, until he himself was old and grown, his wife dead, his children scattered. Then it seemed to Seán that his life on the Moon was an exile, and he desired to return to Ireland, to die there.

The joy in this story is the way it pokes sly fun at the loyalty that the Irish have for Ireland — “the nicest place under the sun” (p. 257) — in the face of the width and breadth of the solar system for comparison. But the grass is always greener on the other side, and what Seán finds when he returns to Ireland is not quite what he bargained on.

(Originally published in 1960; this translation by the present editor.)

REVIEW: “The Chronotron” by Tarlach Ó hUid

Review of Tarlach Ó hUid, “The Chronotron” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 241-249 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: contemplation of self-harm and suicide.

Ó hUid’s tale is a cautionary tale of time-travel gone wrong. Seosamh, the narrator, is the friend of one Professor Ó Neill, who has long been working on “a contraption that could travel through Time” (p. 242). When the machine, the Chronotron, is finally complete, the Professor invites Seosamh over for dinner, one night in 1985, and to join him in testing the contraption.

This story is perhaps the most Irish of all the ones I’ve read in the anthology so far. The Professor interrogates Seosamh on “which event from Irish history is most to blame for the hideous state of the country today?” (p. 246); Seosamh is at no loss for options, including the Norman invasion, the Famine, or the Civil War. What better use for a time machine than to attempt to avert one of these crises? But never forget the consequences of meddling with history…

(Originally published in 1946; translated by the editor in 2018).

REVIEW: “A Vision” by Art Ó Riain

Review of Art Ó Riain, “A Vision” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 233-237 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story, originally written in Irish and newly translated by the editor, is ostensibly a story of the Professor and a new-fangled device that he has modified so that “you can see anything you want” through it now. His friend, the narrator, is the first to see the results.

But the story is less about the technology and more about…I guess I’d describe it as being about the futility of life. That no matter how far we move forward, we always come back to where we began. It’s the circle of life, but not in an uplifting, positive, Lion-King sort of way.

(Originally published in 1927.)

REVIEW: “A Story Without an End (For N.C.)” by Dorothy Macardle

Review of Dorothy Macardle, “A Story Without an End (For N.C.)” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 225-230 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is a story designed to intrigue before one even reads the first word. How can one write a story without an end? Who is N.C.? And what is the significance of the note following the author’s name in the table of contents: “Mountjoy Gaol, December 1922”?

The latter question is answered in Fennell’s brief introductory notes to the story. In December 1922, Macardle was in prison for Anti-Treaty activities (the treaty in question being the Anglo-Irish treaty that split the Irish island into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State). When Fennell picked this particular tale for the collection, he could not have known just how important the ramifications of that treaty would be, just a few years shy of a century later, as the question of the “Irish backstop” plagues the British government as it tries to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union.

All that, before we even read the first word! The story opens, not in Ireland as one might expect, but in Philadelphia, where Nesta McAllister has recently arrived to join her husband Roger. She is a quiet woman, not accustomed to grandiose speech, but there comes a night when in the company of a circle of friends she speaks of dreams that she has had, dreams that have come true. Then she speaks of another dream she’s had, one of which has only partially come true, and which she fears the future will someday bring the second half.

The “story without an end” ends quite simply, on a precipice of fear for the future. But it also does not end, because the Irish troubles did not end with the treaty, or the civil war that followed, and even now, a century later, still plague us. What would Macardle have made of that?

REVIEW: “The Sorcerer” by Charlotte McManus

Review of Charlotte McManus, “The Sorcerer” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 209-221 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The story of the Sorcerer is the story of William Carney, “who had a charm” (p. 209). There is a pleasing uncertainty and ambiguity to this charm — is it charm in the sense of being charming? Or is it more concrete, more explicit, is there some tangible magic spell that he holds? McManus is never explicit, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps as they will.

This unclarity concerning the Sorcerer’s charm is in interesting contrast to another character in the story, whom we only know as the Experimenter — he is never given a name. His experiments are scientific in nature:

He was engaged on experiments of light, and sound, and electric waves, and psycho-activities, and was just then experimenting on sound in its relation to the rest (p. 213).

His particular interest is in animal magnetism and odic forces, and the ways in which all of these forces interact is described sometimes in great detail. It makes for an interesting experience: The magic, less detailed, is described in such a way that one can yet believe in its veracity; the science, more detailed, has become dated, so that it is hard to willingly suspend one’s disbelief. It’s an example of a broader phenomenon — that fantasy can stand the test of time better than science fiction sometimes can.

(Originally published in 1922.)

REVIEW: “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves

Review of Clotilde Graves, “The Great Beast of Kafue” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 193-205 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Some science fiction themes are perennial: And in the case of this present story, the theme which feels just as current now in 2019 as it must have in 1917 when it was originally published is dinosaurs. Modern SF dreams of extracting dino DNA and splicing it in to eggs to create new dinosaurs; and apart from science people still dream of one day finding the Loch Ness monster or her cousins. In “The Great Beast of Kafue”, the narrator, tells us of an incident that happened when he was a young boy, living with his Dutch-descended father in Rhodesia, some years after the death of his Irish mother, concerning the titular Great Beast, whom newspaper reports had said had been sighted in the wild depths. A mysterious, fantastical beast, that few had seen — and in fact, seen by only one white man, and the narrator dreams of the day that he might find the beast himself, and with his father’s elephant gun kill it. But when he tells his father this, he finds himself drawn into a story he’s never heard before, and being asked to promise something that would mean forfeiting those very dreams.

In a weird way, this is almost a love story, more than anything, and its strengths lie in the timelessness of its topics (both dinosaurs AND love). But it’s not entirely timeless: It’s unreflectively colonial in a way that would’ve been unremarkable a century ago but which is somewhat uncomfortable now. I liked the way that Graves incorporated the narrator’s father’s Dutch heritage so seamlessly into the story, even while my appreciation of that warred with how problematic the framing itself was. It’s hard to know what to say about a story like this: I don’t want to excuse the author, but I also don’t want to say “don’t read it”. So I guess the best thing to do is to flag the issue, and let the next reader make an informed decision for themself.

(Originally published in 1917.)

REVIEW: “Lady Clanbevan’s Baby” by Clotilde Graves

Review of Clotilde Graves, “Lady Clanbevan’s Baby” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 179-189 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This is one creepy, appalling story. Lady Clanbevan, as youthful and beautiful now as she was in her twenties, even though she is now approaching fifty, has been a widow for two decades, and yet, she is never seen without the accompany of a young baby, her child — her only child. A chance encounter between the Professor who loved her once many years ago and the unnamed narrator gives the Professor an opportunity to finally confess the details of his experiments with protium — now called radium — and the way in which he discovered he could use it to halt the affects of ageing. By now, of course, the reader knows what resolution must be coming, but it doesn’t make the narrator’s final encounter with Lady Clanbevan’s baby any less disturbing.

(Originally published in 1915.)