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Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction

edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson

(Mercat Press, £9.99, 304 pages, paperback, August 2005, ISBN: 1841830860.)

Review by Keith Brooke

Nova ScotiaIn 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 tongue.

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 poet.

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 story...

The highlights?

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.

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