To the uninitiated, the idea of Irish science fiction seems slightly odd; the country’s culture is generally assumed to be more invested in the past than the future, and to value the fantastic over the supposedly rational.
But it may not be quite as absurd a notion as it once was: Ireland is now as cosmopolitan as any other country in Europe; multinationals have established tech enclaves in incongruous rural areas, and Dublin’s economy is largely dependent on IT. I’ve recently put together an anthology for Tramp Press, A Brilliant Void, that proves the existence of Irish sci-fi centuries back. It has, I found, its own distinctive tenor – a kind of cautious optimism for the future, leavened with the cynical expectation that avaricious, unaccountable chancers will bring about disaster nonetheless.
Ireland may not be synonymous with sci-fi yet (with emphasis on the “yet”), but the material has always been there, and more is on the way. With time there may be an Irish sci-fi canon, but a healthy tradition should suffice for now.
1. Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
His inclusion on any list of sci-fi writers is bound to raise some hackles, but as author and critic Adam Roberts has pointed out, Gulliver’s Travels is shot through with mathematical in-jokes, and the story depends on the pre-eminent science of Swift’s day, navigation. At the time, the world had not yet been fully mapped, and possibility was related to distance: potentially, anything could be true – even giants, floating islands and talking horses – if it happened far enough away. Swift treated this idea literally in order to make fun of it, much as Lucian did with A True History in the first century CE, but it is his extrapolative treatment that has made it an enduring classic.
2. Fitz-James O’Brien(1826-62)
O’Brien falls into the unsettling overlap between sci-fi and horror. Born in Cork and raised in County Limerick, he wrote poetry protesting government policy during the Famine, but it was in the US that he produced the work for which he is best known – the short stories What Was It? and The Diamond Lens. In the first, an obsessed microscopist, frustrated with the limitations of his equipment, consults the ghost of a dead scientist for advice, and sets off on a path to murder and madness. The second story has the narrator attacked in the middle of the night in a New York guesthouse by an invisible predator.
3. Jane Barlow (1856-1917)
Sometimes under her own name, and sometimes as “Felix Ryark,” Barlow wrote across a variety of genres, from Oriental fantasies to quaint tales of Irish country life, but her sci-fi always has an uncomfortable existential edge: the novel History of a World of Immortals Without a God has a misanthropist from Earth plunging the immortal inhabitants of Venus into never-ending despair, while her short story An Advance Sheet marries predestination and a Nietzschean “eternal return” to create a horrifying universe without variety or freedom.
4. Charlotte McManus (1850–1941)
McManus earned a semi-regular income with her patriotic historical novels, but it is for her alternate-history story The Professor in Erin that she is best remembered. The story follows a philologist who winds up in a parallel world where Hugh O’Neill’s forces won the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, with the result that Gaelic Ireland was never conquered, and instead went on to establish itself as a powerful modern nation. The thoroughness of McManus’s world-building is impressive, and she wisely steers the plot with a light-hearted touch.
5. Flann O’Brien (1911-1966)
In a 1963 letter to publisher Timothy O’Keeffe, the author professed “a horrible fear that some stupid critic will praise me as a master of science fiction”. I’ll avoid using the M-word, but the fact remains that a number of his works fit the definition comfortably. His early fiction and his later Cruiskeen Lawn column make fun of sci-fi tropes as often as anything else, and his undisputed masterpiece, The Third Policeman, is full of bizarre concepts derived from scientific principles taken to absurd extremes – see “the atomic theory” and the hypothesis that excessive use of a bicycle will turn a cyclist into their vehicle. When The Third Policeman was rejected by publishers, O’Brien reworked material from it into The Dalkey Archive, which features time-travel (of a sort) and a mad scientist who wants to end the world.
6. James White (1928-1999)
When his childhood ambition to become a doctor was unfulfilled, White channelled his admiration for the medical profession into his Sector General series – novels and short stories set in a hospital space station, where doctors of different species treat patients with a bewildering variety of ailments. White’s work was undoubtedly influenced by his experiences of living in Northern Ireland through the worst years of the Troubles: regardless of what they look like, his extra-terrestrials are basically decent and just want to get on with their lives. There is no room in the Sector General world for blaster-wielding “heroes” who cause destruction and death.
7. Bob Shaw (1931–1996)
Another sci-fi titan from Belfast – in fact, he was a friend of White’s. Expertly blending old-fashioned escapism with “big idea” settings, Shaw is best remembered for two series – The Ragged Astronauts and Orbitsville. The former, set in a parallel universe with slightly different laws of physics, tells of a civilisation trying to escape ecological collapse by leaving their planet in a flotilla of hot-air balloons. In the latter, humanity discovers a colossal sphere in deep space, which turns out to be an artificial ecosystem millions of times the size of Earth. In many of Shaw’s works, potential utopias are discovered, and must be defended from authoritarian regimes that seek to exploit them.
8. Cathal Ó Sándair (1922-96)
Ó Sándair wrote nearly 160 novellas for children, featuring a number of regular characters, such as the cowboy Réamonn Óg and the detective Réics Carló. One of his best series concerns the adventures of Captain Spéirling, Space-Pilot. An Irish-speaking pulp hero in the Dan Dare mould, Spéirling and his brother-in-arms Professor Ó Glarcáin explored the moon, prevented nuclear war and saved Earth from several alien invasions. If ever there was a neglected series that deserved to be reissued, perhaps in an omnibus volume with English translations, it is this one.
9. Sarah Maria Griffin (1988-)
Spare and Found Parts is a homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a feminist dissection of creativity and interpersonal relationships, and a dystopian critique of Irish society. Set in a disease-ravaged future Dublin, the story follows Nell Crane, a talented roboticist who decides to construct a companion for herself out of items she salvages from a nearby beach. Griffin refers to herself as a “spec” (speculative) writer, rather than declaring allegiance to any one genre, but her appreciation for sci-fi, horror and fantasy bleeds through all her work.
10. Jo Zebedee (1971-)
The third Northern Irish writer on this whole-island list, Zebedee writes rollicking adventure stories in the traditional sci-fi mode, but with a flair that few others can match. The dramatic stakes in her work are usually derived from the characters’ personal relationships: her Inheritance trilogy follows the freedom-fighter Kare as he leads an uprising against a galactic empire ruled over by his own mother, while the hero of her alien invasion/prison break novel Inish Carraig is a young man forced into a life of crime to protect his younger sisters and brother. Zebedee’s work is ideal for scratching that high-octane space-opera itch.
• A Brilliant Void: A Collection of Classic Irish Science Fiction edited by Jack Fennell is published by Tramp Press, priced £12. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £10.56, including free UK p&p.