Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction
(Mercat Press, £9.99, 304 pages, paperback, August 2005, ISBN:
their preface to this fine anthology of Scottish speculative fiction,
published to coincide with the World Science Fiction Convention coming
to Glasgow in August 2005, editors Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson
talk of a "visionary thread woven through Scottish story-telling", and
within its pages authors who are Scottish by origin or residence set
to work and "reimagine Scotland in the past, present and future". In
his introduction, David Pringle (honoured at the aforementioned Worldcon's
Hugo Awards ceremony with a well-deserved special award) concentrates
on Scottish science fiction (as opposed to other strands of the fantastic
where Scotland perhaps has a more established tradition), wondering
why there has been almost no Scottish SF before the rise of Banks, MacLeod
and those who have followed, and in doing so, he wryly raises the saltire
over SF history.
So what is Scottish speculative fiction? Well, I've read Nova
Scotia, and it's still hard to say, which, I'd argue, is no bad
thing at all. Scottish SF wouldn't appear to be a sub-genre of the diaspora,
or one tied to heavy engineering or the pastoral, although a case could
be made for each of these and all feature here; there are ghost stories
and lush fantasies, both urban and rural, there's far-future science
fiction and alternate history. There's definitely a pushing of literary
form in this book -- where some stories might struggle it's certainly
not through lack of ambition -- but I suspect this is more a reflection
of editorial tastes than a definite statement about Scottish writing.
One thing that is noticeable is the sense that many of the contributors
seized on the opportunity to write Scottish fiction, revelling in dialogue
and allowing themselves to use Scottish words in their prose where they
might otherwise feel constrained to de-Scot their writing for markets
outside Scotland. How many stories have you read in, say, Asimov's,
that use words like "hirple" and "birl"?
To the stories themselves: as with any anthology, there are a few that
didn't work for me. Matthew Fitt's "Criggie", for instance, is an admirable
effort, but I'm afraid that while nine pages written in broad Scots
might work for someone more familiar with the language I'm just not
equipped to get much from the juxtaposition of cyberpunk and the Scots
There were lots of good stories here. Hannu Rajaniemi's "Deus ex Homine",
about a human-AI war where the distinctions are hard to draw, for all
its lack of slickness packs as many ideas in as you'd find in other
authors' novels. (And indeed, I think the author's style might lend
itself more to book-length fiction, where the slow accretion of a reader's
understanding can work well.) AJ McIntosh's "Not Wisely But Too Well"
is a fun shaggy dog story about a drinking challenge involving Boswell
and Johnson and its consequences, and editor Andrew J Wilson provides
in "Third-Degree Burns" a funny and short piece about Scotland's great
Michael Cobley's "The Intrigue of the Battered Box" is a revisionist
Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the style of JG Ballard, and I don't think
I've ever described a story in those terms before... Angus McAllister's
"Running on at Adventures" is a peculiarly moving constrained-world
puzzle. Jane Yolen's "A Knot of Toads" is a well-told and very traditional
tale of witchery in a Scottish fishing village. In "The Vulture,
4-17 March" Harvey Welles and Philip Raines offer an intriguing insight
into a quite funadamentally reconfigured Glasgow. Stefan Pearson's "The
Bogle's Bargain" is another traditional chiller, nicely done and with
a wonderful sense of place.
In Charles Stross's "Snowball's Chance" global warming meets the devil
in an Edinburgh pub in a cleverly entertaining story, and William Meikle's
"Total Mental Quality, by the Way" is another funny story, this time
of technology getting a cultural remix. Jack Deighton rounds off the
anthology with "Dusk", a cheery little number indeed. If Morrissey was
ever tempted to write far-future, or perhaps it's alien other-world,
science fiction then he might well come up with something like this
Hal Duncan, whose first novel Vellum, was published during Worldcon,
contributes "The Last Shift", a splendidly rich piece of writing about
the last day at a factory in a fantastical Scotland. It opens with a
journey across the city, Billy Hunter walking to work. Nothing happens:
he just walks. But Duncan uses this to paint a vivid picture of his
world that's not quite our world -- this is a lived-in, living other-world.
Then we cut to Old Fred, the factory timekeeper, and the journey this
time is through memory, giving us a sequence of snapshots of the factory
through the years. And so the day progresses. There's not much in the
way of story, but you hardly notice, it's done so well.
Marion Arnott's "Lest We Forget" is a particularly powerful dark fantasy
about an old soldier who is hospitalised after a callous beating. And
Deborah J Miller's "Vanilla for the Lady" is another powerful piece,
this time about a prostitute who has finally had as much as she can
take of her pimp's brutality. I'm not sure I understood as much as I
should, but what the hell.
Up at Worldcon I was lucky enough to witness Gavin Inglis reading his
"Pisces Ya Bas" -- a fine performance indeed. I was impressed to see
that this brilliant tale of a fish full of Glasgow attitude held up
so well in print. Neil Williamson's "The Bennie and the Bonobo" is an
impassioned portrayal of Scottish engineering as it has too often been,
and as it might, and should, have been. With apes. This one was very
neat, very authentic, very well done.
Perhaps my favourite of all was John Grant's "The Hard Stuff", which
opens quite horrifically with a soldier who has seen (and done?) awful
things and who suffers a bomb blast, and survives, after a fashion.
His wife takes him on a journey to Scotland, her homeland, in an effort
to save him from bitter depression, and it's a journey into magic, a
journey of real redemption. This is a fine story, and one of the best
things I've read from this author, which given that he wrote The
Far-Enough Window says a great deal.
Grant's story illustrates the point that much of Nova Scotia
isn't particularly Scottish speculative fiction, but merely good
SF written by Scots. The story does revolve around a return to Scotland,
but it could easily have worked with other settings instead. In this
anthology, as I've said, some of the authors seem to be relaxing with
their Scottishness, but in the end it comes down to good writing, and
there's plenty of that in evidence in the pages of Nova Scotia.
The future may well be tartan.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: