Fennell’s introduction to his collection of “classic Irish science fiction” begins with something of a gasp of surprise at the suggestion that there can be such a thing as Irish science fiction which writes out of the tradition such names as Lord Dunsany, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph O’Neill or (if we think about the focus on then-modern technology set against “fantastic” elements in Dracula) Bram Stoker. Even Jonathan Swift’s name is absent. Turning to the contents, we see clearly that “Irish writers,” for Fennell, are those whose roots are in the history, culture and language of the present-day Republic of Ireland. It is true that writers as central to the post-war British SF field as Bob Shaw and James White are from Northern Ireland, and that a number of the earlier figures (such as Dunsany) were part of the Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy”; Dunsany, for instance, certainly identified as “Irish.” But Fennell’s approach allows him to consider writers and a tradition that will almost certainly be unfamiliar to most SF readers.
Writing generally about SF, Fennell occasionally over-simplifies (saying, for example, that “it was assumed” that women “just weren’t interested” in SF in the Gernsback-era pulps of the 1920s). But, by searching beyond rigid genre-boundaries, he is able to present stories by authors, especially female authors, rarely found in anthologies and discussions of the genre. Of the fifteen stories here presented, I had previously read precisely one. Of the fourteen authors (six men and eight women), I had read (at the most) three. This alone justifies the absence of “big names,” especially as I read the book with mounting pleasure and enjoyment.
The anthology begins appositely enough with an homage to Mary Shelley—“The New Frankeinstein” (1837) by William Maginn, a Cork-born journalist who contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine and published (in 1827) a kind of spoof history, told as from the year 2227. Fennell suggests that Maginn probably had not read Shelley’s Frankenstein, as his savant’s quest is to instil, in the creature he has given life to by means of a “galvanic battery,” a mind. (Frankenstein’s creature is, as we all know, intelligent and cultivated.) Be that as it may (and it is very likely that Maginn’s immediate source was one of the many dramatic presentations which instigated the legend of the “monster” as mindless), the story is an amusing tribute, as our Mad Scientist hero draws upon the contemporary pseudosciences of animal magnetism and phrenology to extract the “cerebral afflatus” of current geniuses (including Percy Shelley, which sets the story precisely in the 1816 when his wife was conceiving the story of Frankenstein, presumably no coincidence) to transform his own Creature. Adding a mind, however, does not add a soul. A Poe-esque mystical climax results in an ending which would have been a cliché even in 1837, but the story triumphs over that.
The next story is probably the best-known, although that might not be saying much: Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” (1858) is one of a number of stories that caused historians of science fiction in the 1950s to point to him as a more genuine precursor of SF than Poe. While it has been reprinted a number of times, to the extent that a less-known story might have been appropriate here, it is still a fine example of his work. Its fusion of science (the use of the microscope in research) and spiritualism (then, of course, claiming a “scientific” rationale), certainly give it more of a flavour of post-Gernsbackian SF than many of Fennell’s selections. O’Brien had the kind of ability to write about science and the feeling for melodrama which makes for the genuine SF writer. His story of a scientist observing and falling in love with the inhabitant of a microscopic world—observed through the “diamond lens” of the title—tells us, in a kind of Poe/Lovecraftian vein, that understanding the world brings on madness; but there are few writers of his time who express the “modernity” of science better than O’Brien in this story. The best-known writer included here is, for example, probably Æ (George William Russell), a contemporary of Yeats whose “The Story of A Star” is a kind of mystical prose-poem typical of the author’s Theosophist leanings. Is this SF? If it isn’t, we would probably have to disqualify a number of important proto-sf figures, such as the French author Flammarion.
Elsewhere, Frances Power Cobbe’s “The Age of Science” (1877) is, like the first story and a number of others, abridged from the original, presumably for considerations of length. Knowing this, we want more, because this extract from a “future periodical” constructs a kind of alternative history which is as vivid and satirical as Kipling’s “With the Night Mail” (1905). Cobbe includes reviews of the best-sellers of her future (a kind of “science fiction” except that in this future fiction is clearly something that has died a lingering death), accounts of new kinds of crime, and (we are told that Cobbe was a campaigner for women’s suffrage) a view of her dystopian future that is not far from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
Another extract is Amelia Garland Mears’s “Mercia, the Astronomer Royal” (1895). This romantic melodrama of a scandal going viral is flagged as “the future” through the adoption of an archaic-sounding language (basically thee-ing and thou-ing), which is clumsy and distracting. Once that is put aside, however, the story is witty and vivid, full of delightful “anticipations” such as a kind of psychic thought-viewer, and Meares’s novel (available via the Internet Archive) is going straight on my to-read list. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford’s “The Professor's Experiment” (1895) is less successful, partly because the denouement of the tale—an applied suspended animation—suggests a backstory which may or may not be present in the text (this inclusion is yet another abridgement). However, its central rationale for the experiment (that placing a patient in suspended animation might enable them to better survive the aftermath of major operations) is ingenious. Jane Barlow’s “An Advance Sheet” (1898) is a parallel-world melodrama positing the existence in the universe of worlds that differ from ours only by a minute change. The intersection of one of these worlds with “ours” results in an intra-family rivalry that results in tragedy.
“The Luck of Pitsey Hall” (1899) is co-written by L. T. Meade (possibly best known for her work for children) and Robert Eustace. It’s one of a number of “scientific detective” stories written by the duo; this particular example is an inconclusive mystery (there is a murder, but it is not solved), but includes the ingenious use of this inconclusivity by its master-criminal. A self-contained extract from a sequence called The Brotherhood of Seven Kings, it reads like a fusion of Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle; the “scientific” element features basic urban-myth mechanics, but the inclusion is yet another extract that mostly makes you want to track down the surrounding material.
On the other hand, Fennell declares that he included two stories from the playwright and novelist Clothilde Graves because they were both so odd that he didn’t want to lose either. “Lady Clanbevan’s Baby” (1915) is a bizarre story about the secret of life-extension and unrequited love, featuring two self-serving people (or three, including the narrator). Its “shock” ending may prove an anticlimax, but it is worth the inclusion. In contrast, “The Great Beast of Kafue,” despite its “dinosaur-hunting in Africa” plot, is both more successful and, interestingly, more moving. A grieving father tells his son how—and why—he refrained from “bagging” the Beast. Kennell speaks of Graves’s “wicked sense of humour” and this story is so dark you laugh, if you laugh, very uncomfortably.
The political aspects of Irish history naturally arise with later stories. Dorothy McCardle’s “A Story Without an End,” for example, was written while she was imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol in 1922. The irony of the “prophetic dream” at the heart of the story is that of any revolutionary activity. Reading the story as a science fiction story rather than a political allegory does nothing to take away the disturbing anxiety which makes its last words so troubling. Charlotte McManus was an Irish nationalist whose The Professor in Erin (1912) is described as a parallel-universe story. Her “The Sorcerer” (1922), which is centred upon the ability of a young man to conjure change, contrasts the folklorish aspects of Irish culture with the scientific aspirations of the “Experimenter,” whose use of “animal magnetism” is perhaps, to modern eyes, as pseudoscientific as William’s “charm.” Perhaps the Experimenter has the last word in his explanation of how this all works, however …
The final three stories are pieces originally written in Irish and translated by the editor. They continue to fascinate. “A Vision” by Art Ó Riain (1927) is either a religious parable or a Dunsany-ish meditation on civilisation and its discontents. Another autodidact (“The Professor”) demonstrates his improved “far-viewer” (he seems to be thinking of television) to show what seems to be the same family in different stages of emigration, constantly dissatisfied and eventually moving full circle. “The Chronotron” by Tarlach Ó hUid (1946), meanwhile, is a time-travel story in which the central character is trying to change the course of recent history. The paradox with which it ends is one with which every modern SF fan will be familiar, but its local references strengthen the reason for the story’s inclusion in this collection. The final story, Cathal Ó Sándair’s “The Exile” (1960), comes, we are told, from a series of juvenile space-operas featuring the indomitable Captain Spérling, and seems to be an appendix to the series. In it, Seán Murphy, having emigrated in his youth to Luna and ended up managing one of the local mines, decides in his retirement to return to Kerry. It’s a neat displacement of emigrant anxiety. Of course, the old folk traditions—such as turf fires—are long gone: central heating is now provided through atomic power. However, the hotels still have the old fire-places in case guests might enjoy them. What Seán discovers, however, is the old saw that you can’t go home again—or rather, home may not be the place that you left in your youth.
It’s an interesting conclusion to what, in the end, is a fascinating collection. Fennell refers, in his introduction, to a question by one of his thesis advisors to the effect of, “What’s the point of ‘recovering’ this stuff … you might find an abandoned car in the middle of a field and spend ages restoring it, but why should anyone care?” (p. ix) Fennell’s answers to this question (which, before we get too hot under the collar, he flags as the kind of searching enquiry a thesis advisor should make) —that this is a question which would not necessarily be asked of a more “respectable” literary genre, and that the SF of the past gives us an insight into how our ancestors imagined the future, while the genre allows us to look at the commonplace from a “hypothetical remove” (and that this kind of extrapolation has always been part of the Irish imagination)—are fine as far as they go. (Fennell’s 2014 book, Irish Science Fiction, would be the place to go to for exploring the further questions that arise, such as, for example, how far “Irishness” infused the fiction of writers whose careers were largely within the American or British literary establishments, or who read the “Captain Spérling” and other genre stories.) But the shorter answer from the reader’s viewpoint is that you finish the book with a sense of profit and pleasure. These are all good and thought-provoking stories; a well-balanced selection of material that is not only “relevant” (with its inescapable connotations of “worthy” or “good for us”) but enjoyably readable.
Whether we are reading in terms of the nineteenth century precursors of modern SF (Fitz-James O’Brien and Amelia Garland Mears), political thought-experiments (Dorothy McCardle and Tarlach Ó hUid), or the importance of a vernacular language (Cathal Ó Sándair), these stories are living proof that people should, and do “care” about their revival. A Brilliant Void leaves us wanting more.