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Scotland as Science Fiction

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This uninterrogated forward logic poses a particular difficulty for places such as Scotland, specifically because the Scotland of the science fiction era par excellence (nineteenth and twentieth century) has been powerfully theorized as "out of history." Lacking political impact after the Union between England and Scotland of 1707, notes Cairns Craig, Scotland for long years has stood conceptually incapable of progress:

Not having a culture or a history which is shaped exactly like those of a major European culture (whose are, except the major cultures?), not having conformed to the pattern of those cultures whose 'progress' is taken to define progression itself, we are only the echo of real events, real achievements, real creations that have already occurred somewhere else—somewhere that is by some magical transformation also the world. Or, as in the case of the Scottish Enlightenment, or Scottish achievements in science and engineering, they are presented as having nothing to do with being Scottish.4

Worse, "to lose the sense of history is to live in a vacuum where all process has apparently ceased. In such an environment narrative collapses, and the arts of narrative are bound, therefore, to be problematic" (Craig, 34). What, then, has Scotland to contribute to science fiction? Lacking a distinct science, and thus failing to rise to "progress," Scotland, apparently, cannot even articulate within the acceptable codes of fiction.

Yet in the discussions of science fiction origins, Scotland might claim priority—not as first in science or story, but as always pre-postmodern. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon note that the genre "provides an ideal site from which to explore the liminal, the brink, the verge, the frontier, the edge."5 However, they invoke the breaking edge of history that is progress to articulate the stresses of a genre always grounded in the problems of its day. And today:

The cautionary 'post' in postmodern represents both our hesitation to let go of the past/present and our anxiety that we are, in fact, on the other side of irrevocable change. This moment of seemingly perpetual cultural and political crisis is represented by a bewildering assortment of postings. The present is postcolonial. It may, in fact, be posthistorical. ... We verge on both postsubjectivity and posthumanity. (Hollinger, 3)

Notably, such shocking dislocations have long since and continually been acted out among post-Union Scots.

Post-Union Scots, as newly British and no longer unproblematically Scottish, manage to be both –colonial and post–.6 This twisting binarism of post/colonialism has rendered even Scotland's recently acquired devolution problematic (1999). The prospect of renewed Scottish difference and power playing through a parliament has been complicated by adjusted loyalties—post- and -colonial narratives contend across a term, "devolution," that points simultaneously to freedom and a separate progress, and to a backwards evolution. Caught in a vexed present and with no idealizable future, Scots find themselves articulating a compromised space subject to an uncertain temporality. And as they seek to work out their own fictions of being—to deal with being "on the other side of irrevocable change," in Hollinger and Gordon's terms—Scots, Craig suggests, posit "values which stand outside of history as we define it: not after history, or before it, but beyond it" (Hollinger, 3; Craig, 224). Scientific or not, Scottish fictions imagine places and times elsewhere that embody the perplexity of a culture inevitably located in the present but perhaps crumbling toward "modernity."

cover image for The Underground CityScottish fictions that by their projections in place and time often turn out to be scientific fulfill the primary criterion for science fiction as outlined by Darko Suvin. This is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”7 Indeed, by wrestling for generations with im/possible futures (given Scotland’s intractable situation), and playing them out in distant spaces and times that are also places defined by current anxieties, Scotland foregrounds science fiction as a strangely geological and layered phenomenon. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that Jules Verne aligns his 1877 Les Indes noires according to a distinctly Scottish sense of place. His underground city runs under Loch Katrine (made famous by Walter Scott’s romances), and is accessed through the seams of a coal mine.8

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4 Cairns Craig, Out of History: Narrative Paradigms in Scottish and English Culture (Polygon, 1996), p.11.

5 Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon, eds., Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p.4.

6 See Caroline McCracken-Flesher, "Thinking Nationally/Writing Colonially? Scott, Stevenson, and England," Novel: A Forum on Fiction 24.3 (Spring 1991): pp.296-318.

7 Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (Yale University Press, 1979), pp.7-8.

8 Jules Verne, Les Indes noires (sic, 1877). In Britain, published as The Child of the Cavern (1877). The novel's alternate titles include The Underground City. Currently available as The Underground City, trans. Sarah Crozier (Luath, 2005). Ian Thompson's foreword to this translation notes that two Verne plots are set in Scotland, and three others pass through it, furthermore, "Verne delighted in populating his novels with Scottish characters, invariably cast in a heroic mould" (ix).