"The Cost of Pearls" by Edwin Morgan
"A Case of Consilience" by Ken MacLeod
"Deus ex Homine" by Hannu Rajaniemi
"Not Wisely But Too Well" by A.J. McIntosh
"Third-Degree Burns" by Andrew J. Wilson
"Lest We Forget" by Marion Arnott
"The Intrigue of the Battered Box" by Michael Cobley
"Five Fantastic Fictions" by Ron Butlin
"Running on at Adventures" by Angus McAllister
"A Knot of Toads" by Jane Yolen
"Sophie and the Sacred Fluid" by Andrew C. Ferguson
"Vanilla for the Lady" by Deborah J. Miller
"Pisces Ya Bas" by Gavin Inglis
"The Vulture, 4 – 17 March" by Harvey Welles and Phiilip Raines
"The Bogle’s Bargain" by Stefan Pearson
"Criggie" by Marrhew Fitt
"Snowball’s Chance" by Charles Stross
"Total Mental Quality, by the Way" by William Meikle
"The Bennie and the Bonobo" by Neil Williamson
"The Hard Stuff" by John Grant
"Dusk" by Jack Deighton
Nova Scotia, the showcase anthology of Scottish speculative fiction launched at the 2005 Glasgow Worldcon, is dedicated to the proposition that SF is alive and flourishing in Scotland. The editors have been inclusive in their definitions of Scottish author and of speculative fiction, so that we find here twenty-two writers [alas, no Iain M. Banks], either native-born or resident, reimagining Scotland as it was or could have been or perhaps will be.
The title Nova Scotia suggests an emphasis upon the future, on the science-fictional vision. In his introduction to the anthology, David Pringle speaks of science fiction as a natural heir to the long, forward-looking history of Scottish letters. This reader, however, finds the majority of the works collected here to be fantasy, and that the strongest of them are in general those that look backward to Scotland’s rich traditions and folklore, so that she wonders if perhaps Auld Scotland might have been a more fitting title.
The anthology opens with a work from the Makar of Scotland, Edwin Morgan, in which the distinctions between science fiction and fantasy hardly seem to matter. The theme of “The Cost of Pearls” is one of the classics of SF: the encounter between species, the dialogue of human and alien minds. In this case, a conclave of Scotland’s eldest and wisest mussels, “black-encrusted and crusty with it,” have charged that humans, with their “great gulley knives,” would destroy a species for a handful of pearls. A species, a world, a universe—the readers of SF certainly know this sad human tale.
“A Case of Consilience,” as we might expect from Ken MacLeod, is indubitably science fiction, set on a space station where humans have set up an outpost to oversee contacts with intelligent alien life. There has so far not been much progress establishing communication, the aliens being vast, subterranean mycoid organisms—giant fungus. But Donald MacIntyre, the station’s conscript chaplain, is not daunted by this difficulty. As a Scots Presbyterian, he knows that he has been sent to this place for a purpose: to bring the Good News to the aliens, even to a fungus, if it has the concept of sin.
This story also has been told before, but what really matters is how well the telling is done. For some readers the first half of this work might seem overloaded with infodumps, delivered by talking heads. Still, the theological issues involved have always been intriguing [“What are we to make of rational beings who are not men, and who may be sinners?”], and readers may find that MacLeod’s smooth prose makes the expository lump easy to swallow. Certainly the theological issues are typically Scottish: “Sadness, tristia, had been one of the original seven deadly sins. Which probably meant every Scottish Presbyterian went straight to hell, or at least to a very damp purgatory, if the Catholics were right. If the Catholics were right! After three hundred and seventeen days in the Extra-Terrestrial Contact Station, this was among the least heretical of the thoughts Donald MacIntyre was willing to countenance.”
In contrast, Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Deus ex Homine” is undoubtedly the least Scottish of the stories collected here; it could have been set anywhere else in this future world at war, altered by a strange plague that turns humans into deadly, near-omnipotent gods, “a volition-bonding, recursively self-improving and self-replicating program. A genie that comes to you and makes its home in the machinery around you and tell you that do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. It fucks you up, but it’s sexy as hell.” Jukka is an ex-god, his infection now burned away and part of his mind with it—human again, but not quite whole. An AI symbiote reads people for him, interprets their moods and allows him to function almost as a social being. He even finds a lover, but Aileen has left him to join the war against the gods, and Jukka does not know why; his symbiote can not tell him. But now she is coming home to Scotland on leave, and she has sent word she wants to see him.
Mostly, the science-fictional stuff here—the godplague, the AI, the symbiote—is all juggling and handwaving; it doesn’t ever make a lot of sense. But the heart of this story is humanity, and the need that humans have for one another, even if some of them are gods.
With a turn of the page to Hal Duncan’s story, the anthology’s voice acquires a Scots accent as it shifts into fantasy mode, which turns out to be the dominant tone of the book. “The Last Shift” is set in a recognizable Scotland where the old factories are shutting down, where the jobs are moving overseas and stranding all the workers who cannot adapt. Billy can adapt; his job is in IT, and he will only be shifting to a new upscale office. But the rest of the workers are like Old Fred, who keeps time for the factory, who rings the old iron bell to mark the changing of the shifts—what will they do when the bell is finally silenced?
The fact that the workers have horns and wings, that the factory produces yarn for the magic carpet industry, may seem to be a token fantasy element with no real reason to be part of this tale. But this reader suspects otherwise, for Old Fred’s bell seems to have a greater-than-mundane power over the workers bound to it, awaiting its final peal: a subtle and moving conclusion.
“Not Wisely But Too Well” takes us back in time to 1773, when Boswell made his famous journey to the Hebrides with Dr. Johnson, who openly scorned the local folk beliefs as superstition. As A. J. MacIntosh tells it, Boswell schemes to revenge himself upon the pompous Johnson, who had rebuked him for drunkenness, by daring him to disprove a spurious dictum of folklore: that an old man in the isles may not drink whiskey lest he invoke the sight of the bogles and other supernatural beings that infest the place. The dare is taken, the oisquebeatha drunk, after which the two travellers, much the worse for it, venture out into the rainy night in search of spooky apparitions. They do indeed encounter an apparition, but it proves to be a very different sort of being from the bogle of local tradition.
While technically science fiction, this piece takes its interest in equal parts from the gruesome recitations of local folklore and from MacIntosh’s obvious delight in skewering both Boswell and Johnson, knowing this pair too well for their comfort. This story is just a lot of fun, particularly for those readers familiar with the source material.
Andrew J. Wilson also draws on a famous figure from Scottish letters, the poet Rabbie Burns, but “Third Degree Burns” is less a story than a sketch of the possibility of stories based on the proposition that Burns faked his death at age 37 and fled to America under another identity.
“Lest We Forget” is a moving, haunted tale by Marion Arnott, who reminds us of the real horror that was the first World War, in which many Scotsmen served and lost their lives. The narrator’s Grampa survived, “the only one from our street left alive,” and even at age 106 he keeps an annual vigil at the town’s War Memorial to honor his fallen comrades, whose names are inscribed there. Until the night when vandals attack the memorial and the old man is fatally injured trying to defend it. But the bonds forged among men in those trenches were so strong, that even the dead may come to march alongside their old companions, and to take revenge.
And by some devilish cantrip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light.
Michael Cobley shifts the scene both backwards and sidewise in time, for “The Intrigue of the Battered Box” takes place in an alternate version of reality where Edinburgh is the capital of the Empire, and Sheldrake Ormiston is its greatest detective. Despite an ill-considered pause for an historical infodump, this entertaining story is otherwise a whole lot of fun, crammed brimful of arch-villains, Secret Brotherhoods, timeline travelers, and the missing skull of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Ron Butlin contributes “Five Fantastic Fictions” to the anthology, brief vignettes of persons displaced in warped realities. Calum McCall recalls the bright, multicolored suns that brightened his childhood before he woke one day in gray, dreary Scotland. The composer Arnold Schoenberg believes that the twelve-tone scale can save the world from itself after World War One. No one notices when God turns himself into a burning bush to deliver a message. No one listens to the Delphic Oracle, either. And William Littlejohn learns that you should be careful what you wish for.
Angus McAllister returns us to a very familiar science-fictional setting in “Running on at Adventures.” Ewan lives in a classic dystopia, a world designed for static perfection, in which there is never anything new and the Regulations are supposed to explain everything. But Ewan asks foolish questions; he suspects that there is something more to the world, or rather, something beyond it. To the reader’s unsurprise, Ewan finds his way to the outside and encounters freedom for the first time in his life, but his reaction to it is not quite what we are supposed to expect. This piece is an amusing satire, but its punch is no more than a light tap.
In “A Knot of Toads,” Jane Yolen takes us back to the world of Scotland’s grim history and folklore. Her father’s death has summoned Janet home to the fishing isle of St. Monans. She has long been estranged from the old man, a scholar who had most recently been studying the history of Scotland’s witches—in particular those witches who had attempted to raise a storm to wreck King James’ ship in 1590. On St. Monans, Janet finds everything as she had expected it would be, unchanged. She also finds toads infesting her father’s study, where he kept his research notes. Investigating the notebooks, she discovers passages that turn out to be spells, written in a strange form of Latin which she reads aloud to try to make it out.
What happens next does not come as a great surprise to the reader, but the heart of this tale is not in the details of the witches’ spells; it is in Janet’s connection with her home and its traditions. However, there is one small, bothersome detail: in over half of the stories collected in this anthology, there is some use of the Scots dialect; only Yolen has chosen to translate a few of the terms into standard English, which this reader found jarring, here.
Andrew C. Ferguson turns to a lighter, contemporary brand of witchcraft in “Sophie and the Sacred Fluids.” At Mary Seaton’s School for Girls, Sophie and her girlfriends learned the first principle of their magic: “All water acquires psychic force when passed through the Sacred Vessel of a woman’s body.” The fluids thus produced include Blood, Sweat, Pussy Juice, Salty Urine, and of course Wet Snot. For a number of years, Sophie has used them to good effect, attracting men or taking revenge on a bitchy supervisor, but when she carries things too far, the bitchy supervisor discovers her secret. This is a slight piece, but a bit of a laugh.
Deborah J. Miller’s “Vanilla for the Lady” takes place in a contemporary Scotland that seems, at first, more realistic. Taz is a whore who wants out of the life but can’t break free from her brutal pimp. One night she encounters a man who calls her by her real name: Anastasia. How did he know? What does he want? Jon is an alien assassin who has been assigned to kill her; the authorities of his world fear what certain humans might become. But now he knows that they have lied to him, that humans are not mindless vermin, that they are capable of feeling. He does not want to kill Anastasia, but she does not seem to care for her own life. It is a temptation, the end to her pain. There is real, heartfelt emotion in this story, but this reader found it hard to accept an additional mystical element that seemed extraneous.
Gavin Ingliss gives us “Pisces Ya Bas,” a Tall Tale set in Glasgow, where a trash-filled, mucky pond has become the residence of the world’s meanest, most bad-assed, foul-mouthed fish. “Fuck off out ma pond.” This piece is just perfectly, gut-splittingly funny, a fuckin gem of a fish story.
More Glasgow humor comes from Harvey Welles and Philip Raines, who bring us the news from the pages of “The Vulture, 4 – 17 March.” The separated neighborhoods of Kentigern and St. Mungo’s are to be united again for a joint cultural festival, Glasgow! Week. A wide variety of events are scheduled, each expressing the native ethos of the two neighborhoods. For example, the schedule for the St. Mungo’s film festival consists of successive showings of Meet the Fockers. This is good stuff, even for those of us readers who are not personally acquainted with Glasgow and its neighborhoods.
Stefan Pearson draws again on the darker aspects of Scotland’s folklore in his chilling tale “The Bogle’s Bargain.” Like Jane Yolen’s contribution, it is set on a remote fishing isle, where the old legends still seem to haunt the place. The story is told from alternating points of view. In the past, Sally’s Dad was a widower with two young daughters when a storm threatened to take his boat. At the last moment, a bogle appeared on deck and offered him a bargain: “your woman for your life.” He had thought to cheat the monster, his wife being in her grave, but forgot that his daughters would soon be women. Now their lives are forfeit, for the bogle will never give up his claim.
Sally is growing up resentful of her Dad’s attempts to keep her a child—his “wee princess”—all unaware of his secret. The bogle is drawing closer, waiting. There are storm forecasts, and Sally’s older sister is supposed to be on the ferry, coming home for Christmas, despite her father’s attempts to discourage her from making the crossing. Pearson cranks up the tension with every scene, and his conclusion is devastating. He even accomplishes the difficult task of making the bogle a convincing monster. Should this reader ever encounter a bogle under dire circumstances, she would now know better than to try to cheat it!
Yet there is a point at which we do wonder: Why did the daft man stay there on the island after he recognized the danger? Why didn’t he leave and take both his daughters to the mainland, where they would seem to be quite safe? Such questions do somewhat diminish the power of this otherwise harrowing tale.
Matthew Fitt issues a real challenge to the reader, for while many of the authors in Nova Scotia have employed the Scots dialect in their stories, “Criggie” is written entirely in up-to-date Scots. “Paralyzed in slow-mo drow, Criggie canna richt breathe as panic threatens tae stap his thrapple.” Calvin Criggie suffers from flashbacks after spending fourteen years in an Asian prison, but he is bent on revenge upon the enemies who put him there, as he is about to be elected President of Muckillopolis.
While the reader should not be daunted by the dialect, it must be said that this piece does not stand alone as a story, being a bridge between Fitt’s previous novel and its forthcoming sequel, Kaledonika. It does, however, serve as a tantalizing appetizer.
Charles Stross is best-known for his science fiction, and “Snowball’s Chance” does have a science-fictional setting, a gloomy future Scotland where global warming has brought an eternal winter to this northern land [the melting ice cap has displaced the Gulf Stream]. Davy would leave the place if he had the money, if he had somewhere else to go. But failing these requirements, he leads a life of crime and drunkenness until the day the Devil comes into the tap and offers to buy him a drink. This is not quite the usual deal-with-the-devil story. A grim sort of fun, marred slightly by the talkiness of the negotiations, but Stross more than makes up for this by the extra twist he gives the blade at the very end of the tale.
William Meikle’s contribution is science fiction in a silly mode, “Total Mental Quality, by the Way.” The mcguffin here is an unexplained bit of biotechnology that one of the characters has stolen from a developmental lab. For John, obsessed with sound equipment, it is the ultimate recording device, but the black box has a mind of its own, and worse, it escapes, and even worse, it produces spores, and even worse than that, it infects all the electronic communication equipment in Great Britain, and worst of all, it is fond of an entertainer known as Jimmy Shand. Which might strike the reader as humorous if she had ever heard of Jimmy Shand, but she rather doubts it.
Neil Williamson’s story, “The Bennie and the Bonobo,” reads like the purest science fiction, yet it is based on the true history of George Bennie and his railplane, an early monorail system that failed for lack of funding, due to the Depression. In Williamson’s version of events, Bennie is confronted with a visitor from the future, an enhanced bonobo engineer, but it is a future where Bennie’s dream was a success, where the Bennie Transportation Corporation has gained such a monopoly that it stifles all new invention. The bonobo, Mrs. Blanchflower, has come to stop Bennie, but she has discovered that in most of the possible futures but her own, the railplane had failed without her intervention.
Williamson’s solution is unfortunately anticlimactic. After a promising beginning, the narrative shifts into lecture, then peters out. The history of the railplane is fascinating, but surely something more could have been done with it.
John Grant begins “The Hard Stuff” in Falluja, where Quinn Hogarth’s hands are burned away by an incendiary device. Quinn’s obsessive self-pity threatens his marriage and his sanity, until his wife Tania decides to take him to visit her family in Scotland. But Tania turns out to be from quite another Scotland, not the place we can find on maps today. Her family gives Quinn a gift that lets him heal himself—not by regrowing his hands, but by abandoning the bitterness that had been keeping him from living a whole life. Yet there is, as always, a price.
This story is strong stuff, and the political aspects may disturb some readers. Grant’s hate for the war and the warmongers almost sets the pages on fire, but the love he portrays is just as powerful. A few aspects of the tale may remain a mystery to the reader [exactly what is in that bottle?], but maybe that’s just the way it is sometimes, in Fairyland.
The anthology comes to a well-chosen conclusion with “Dusk” by Jack Deighton, as it depicts the end of the world. This is not our own world, or if it is, things have greatly changed, but the death of any world deserves to be mourned. The beings here are Entish sorts, strangely tree-like; as their sun fails, they cannot survive where they are, yet their existence is literally rooted to their home ground. Should they migrate, should they remain, perhaps to die? Is there hope?
Some readers may suppose that this tale has nothing to do with Scotland, but they would be forgetting how far north Scotland lies, and how low the sun falls in the wintertime. A lovely, poignant, and dismal tale, a fitting closing to this anthology of Scottish SF.
Publisher: Mercat Press (Aug. 2005)
Paperback: 304 pages