Between Stark Reality and Far-Fetched Fantasy
"You may have heard of The Caledonian Antisyzygy, which makes us wag back and forth between stark reality and far-fetched fantasy," Alasdair Gray told an interviewer before asking: "Has any land lacked writers who do that?"
The expression was coined almost a century ago by critic G. Gregory Smith in order to evoke the "zigzag of contradictions" in our national literature. "Oxymoron was ever the bravest figure," he wrote in Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, "and we must not forget that disorderly order is order after all." The idea was then adopted and developed by Hugh MacDiarmid, A.K.A. Christopher Murray Grieve — something of a zigzag of contradictions himself — and has been the spectre at the feast of Scottish literary culture ever since.
I've been thinking a lot about this since being asked to chair "The Early Days of a Better Future?", part of Aye Write! Glasgow's Book Festival, on Sunday 7 March. Five leading fantasy and science-fiction writers will join me: Michael Cobley, Hal Duncan, Ken MacLeod, Deborah J. Miller and Richard Morgan. It's certainly an impressive line-up of Scottish-based authors, and we're going to have a lot to talk about as we discuss what lies ahead for Scottish speculative fiction and the country itself.
When I co-edited Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction with Neil Williamson, we collected twenty short stories and one poem, by Scots Makar Edwin Morgan, that demonstrated the breadth and depth of the contemporary Scottish imagination. Four of the guests on Sunday's panel appeared in this award-nominated book. What's more, Ken MacLeod's contribution, "A Case of Consilience", was one of two stories reprinted in both of the year's best SF anthologies in the USA — and it even appears on the Books from Scotland website itself.
Nova Scotia was published to coincide with the World Science Fiction Convention, which was held in Glasgow in 2005, and Neil and I set out to do two things in particular. First, we meant to let the world see how good Scottish SF and fantasy are, of course. Secondly, we wanted to remind Scotland that, while the fantastic may not mirror our everyday experience, as such, it does throw light on the way in which we think about ourselves.
The Caledonian Antisyzygy is often cited in discussions of the recurring theme of duality that defines classics like James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it goes deeper than that. As Alasdair Gray noted, Scottish writers have yo-yoed between critically admired hard-headed realism, the kind of writing you'd expect from the archetypal canny Scot, and less intellectually respectable flights of fancy, which are more commonly associated with the Gaelic stereotype. The truth of the matter is that the same writer often produces both kinds of work.
In fact, Alasdair Gray tackled the Caledonian Antisyzygy head on in Lanark: A Life in Four Books, and nothing has been the same since, not least because this masterpiece reunited the divided self of the Scottish literary personality. The novel synthesises the realistic and the fantastic, of course, but it also combines fantasy with science fiction. In essence, Gray changed the rules of Scottish writing by breaking them.
Iain Banks was one of the Scottish novelists inspired by the example of Lanark, and under what he has called "the world's most transparent pseudonym", Iain M. Banks, he has written a significant amount of science fiction. He's told me that he doesn't distinguish between his SF and mainstream work, and indeed, some of his greatest books, such as The Bridge and Use of Weapons, can lay equal claim to the qualities of either of his noms de plume. In fact, his latest mainstream novel, Transition, is also undeniably science fiction. In a sense, this completes the alignment — or syzygy — of his work.
When I asked him in an interview which he would choose if he had to, he told me: "Science fiction is my first love in literary terms. In a sense, you don't need ideas to write mainstream fiction, there's always things happening around you that suggest stories, whereas you have to have some original idea about how things are going to be different to write decent SF."
I pointed out that his friend Ken MacLeod has commented that science fiction is the only genre to be judged by its worst examples.
"It's techno-fear, in my opinion," Banks said. "The people who control our media and culture are generally — actually almost exclusively — from a Humanities background, and they have a degree of contempt for and fear of the nuts and bolts of the way stuff works even in our own society, never mind in how it might all work in the future. A genre which is about ideas and which is fascinated with technology and the future was never going to be their cup of tea. So they take the piss out of it. Not that they'd ever express it in such crude terms, of course."
I hope that things are changing. Scotland and its literature are stronger when both sides of their character are recognised, respected and allowed to work together as equal partners. Change is inevitable, but we can make this a change for the better if we follow our dreams.