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Scotland as Science Fiction

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Moreover, it is important to remember that Scotland has offered up major narratives for the fiction of displacement that is science, however much the facts essential to those stories have been appropriated and recast according to the imperatives of empire. Nineteenth-century Scottish science was renowned, whether from the practices of the Edinburgh anatomists that led to reconsiderations of the human as machine (we might think of Robert Knox, and his transcendental anatomy), or James Clerk Maxwell's science of energy that pointed to differential space. The steel revolution cited by Rieder builds from the entrepreneurial spirit of that prototypical Scottish lad of parts, Andrew Carnegie; from Carnegie's railroads to the pathways illuminated by the "lighthouse Stevensons"—direct ancestors to that inveterate wanderer Robert Louis Stevenson—Scottish technology carved the world into new spaces and transformed the notion of travel in place. Nor should we forget that the Celtic Otherworld has contributed much more than blarney wherever men "boldly go." Realities both simultaneous and strangely out-of-step play forward through Scotland's dislocated culture into the alternate spaces of the fiction that is science. Scotland's folk culture has always known the risks and ventures possible for those who turn sideways to the sun.

The problem for today's science fiction, say Hollinger and Gordon, is "less to extrapolate a far future than to keep up with a permanently mutable present, to live up to its reputation as a literature of change" (Hollinger, 2). At a moment when change seems exponential, but improvement dubious—when "progress" fractures along the fault lines of temporality and ethics—Scotland has something to offer. Superpowers fiddle while the globe begins to burn, but from that "other side of irrevocable change," Scotland has laid out routes at least to literary survival (Hollinger, 3). Although to be ahead in a devolving world (like Scotland) is to be more embroiled in the im/possibilities extrapolated from the present, Scottish science fiction writers show that to be overtaken by time is also to figure as persistent. There is another side to irrevocable change.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay notes that "It is difficult to imagine something that one does not care about" ("Dis-Imagined Communities," 236). Today, science fiction writers in dominant/technological places define their genre, and barely recognize other traditions—whether of literature or of science fiction. The disconnect, he thinks, will only get worse, for elites increasingly see themselves "as potential internationals or singleton multinationals" (237). More positively, perhaps, "tens of millions of people will move across borders of nation-states and find their loyalties divided, their vision of the future clouded." Could we hope that a divided loyalty will mean an interrogated tomorrow? Less positively, "it will seem that only the technohistorical center will have a future." What, Csicsery-Ronay wonders, will other writers and readers do? Will they still want to write science fiction, which means using "the tools of hegemony"? "So far," he concludes, "we have seen only the science fiction futures of the nations that think they are empires. We must wait to see whether the nations who think they are nations will imagine different futures." But of course, we already can posit an answer—one not in line with the desires, but perhaps nonetheless to the good of both center and periphery.

As Cairns Craig says, "the fundamental trajectory of the modern Scottish novel has not been within the narrative of history, but between history and its other, between the mapmaker's map and an 'otherworld' where space has different dimensions."9 Perhaps Scottish literature is, inevitably, science fiction, and as such, a model for other places, and future spaces. So as progress falls back on itself, readers and science fiction writers alike can follow the routes mapped to alternate spaces by Scots long ago caught within, and thus already nimble manipulators of, the fictions of science and society.

Caroline McCracken-Flesher
Professor, Department of English
University of Wyoming

This article is excerpted from the introduction to Scotland as Science Fiction, ed. Caroline McCracken-Flesher (forthcoming, Bucknell University Press).

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9 Cairns Craig, The Modern Scottish Novel (Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 241