Review of Jack Fennell, ed., A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction (Tramp Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.
A while back I had time to kill in Belfast airport so I ended up in WH Smith’s hoping to find the newest Rivers of London book. I failed at that, but what I did find was a book that touted itself as being “a selection of classic Irish science fiction”. Classic science fiction, you say? Some people might think that’s an oxymoron, that SF is an inherently modern genre. In his introduction to the collection, “The Green Lacuna”, the editor Jack Fennell addresses precisely the issue of genre, as well as whether it makes sense to speak of a specifically Irish tradition in SF.
Fennell kicks off his introduction with a brief rehearsal of the fantastical elements that can be found in the history of Irish storytelling, arguing that many of the recurring tropes in medieval Irish mythology and literature are the same tropes that one finds in contemporary science fiction — from Balor of the Evil Eye, villain of the 11th C Book of Invasions who “was basically a mutant with laser-vision” (p. vii) to stories in the “Christian fantasy-voyage” genre with encounters with creatures that should “be read as forerunners of modern sci-fi aliens and mutants” (p. viii). Now, these examples might seem a bit far stretched — more fantasy than sci fi as there isn’t any “science” that is being invoked to underpin or explain the fantastical elements of these medieval myths. But they are part of a continuous tradition that directly fed into modern sci fi, mediated by, among other things, the classic Gothic literature of the 19th century, of which “Ireland was home to one of the most celebrated varieties” (p. viii), Ascendancy Gothic, feature “paradigm-shifting encounters with the other” (p. viii). This strand of gothic literature, Fennell argues, combined with the scientific romances of Verne, Wells, and others to become the direct parents of pulp SF in the early 20th century. A second specifically Irish influence on the development of modern SF, Fennell argues, is the Irish “desire to see the future” (p. xi), which is manifest in the central role that prophecy has always played in Irish literary tradition, and in particular in the aisling or ‘dream vision’ poetry.
Despite this, Irish science fiction has often been relegated to the “marginalia” (p. x) of Irish literature, Fennell argues. This anthology is an attempt to right this, and to bring to light stories and authors that have been sidelined. Reading classic science fiction not only allows us to “look at the commonplace from a hypothetical remove” (p. ix), it allows us a glimpse into what people of the past thought their future would, or could, be like.
This focus on the future is the red thread that ties all the stories together, even more than the cultural background of the authors. The stories in the anthology cover the period 1837-1960, and are both standalone stories and excerpts from larger works. I was super pleased to see that more than half of the authors included were women (8 women, 6 men). (Wait, you didn’t know there were female SF writers before the 1960s? Now you know!) As is usual, we will review each story individually and link the reviews back to this post when they are posted:
- “The New Frankenstein” by William Maginn
- “The Diamond Lens” by Fitz-James O’Brien
- “The Age of Science” by Frances Power Cobbe
- “The Story of a Star” by Æ (George William Russell)
- “Mercia, the Astronomer Royal” by Amelia Garland Mears
- “The Professor’s Experiment” by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford
- “An Advance Sheet” by Jane Barlow
- “The Luck of Pitsey Hall” by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
- “Lady Clanbevan’s Baby” by Clotilde Graves
- “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves
- “The Sorcerer” by Charlotte McManus
- “A Story Without An End (For N.C.)” by Dorothy Macardle
- “A Vision” by Art Ó Riain
- “The Chronotron” by Tarlach Ó hUid
- “The Exile” by Cathal Ó Sándair
There are so many things to love about this collection — Fennell’s lucid and informative introduction, the variety of the stories, the coherence of the whole. I highly recommend it for classic SF lovers, people with an interest in Irish literature, people who want to read more early SF by women, or those who just want to curl up with a good story. This collection has it all.