Space Notes:  Scottish SF Writers

by Duncan Lunan

Before science fiction was recognised as a genre, Scottish authors felt as free as writers elsewhere did, to tackle it, perhaps regarding it as a new field of fantasy  (where the Scottish tradition was particularly strong)  or adventure fiction.  The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an early example in 1866.  Two of the big names in the 19th century were Robert Duncan Milne (1844-1899), born in Cupar, and the mathematician Hugh MacColl, author of Mr. Stranger’s Sealed Packet (1889), both of whom preceded and may have inspired H.G. Wells.  John Buchan wrote science fiction, and the SF elements in his work were reviewed in an article by Paul Cockburn, along with one of his short stories, in the first issue of the new Scottish SF magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, in June 2015.  So did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:  The Maracot Deep is better known than the Professor Challenger novels which followed The Lost World, collected in the anthology The Lost World and Other Stories  (Wordsworth Classics, 1995);  but the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories foresaw the development of forensic science so accurately that they’re now regarded as detective fiction rather than SF.  Many of Conan Doyle’s short stories also had science fiction themes – examples are collected along with fantasy and horror in the anthology Tales of Unease (Wordsworth Editions, 2000).  Where to place David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus  (1920)  within the canon remains a subject of controversy.  It’s noticeable that major Scottish writers still regard science fiction as a field they can enter at will, rather than a ghetto to avoid – see below.

Fig. 1. Angus MacVicar, The Lost Planet 1953

In the 1940s and 50s the first flowering of Scottish space fiction was on radio, with young adult fiction by John Keir Cross from Carluke  (The Angry Planet, Return to Mars)  and Angus MacVicar from Campbeltown, two of whose Lost Planet serials also made it to television  (Fig. 1).  In the papers the Jeff Hawke strip by Sydney Jordan from Dundee began in 1954, ran in different forms in different papers for the next 34 years, and has now been reprinted in full by Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos  (Fig. 2).  Two of the later stories revealed that Hawke had a Scottish background, at least;  both Dan Dare in Eagle and Jet Morgan in Journey into Space had Scottish ancestry, though like Hawke the characters were English.  Of course, all Angus MacVicar’s characters were Scots.

Lunar 10 cover illustration with the images of an astronaut and Earth in the distance,
Fig. 2. Lunar 10, Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos, cover by Sydney Jordan

The Glasgow Herald (The Herald since 1992), the longest running national newspaper in the world, reached its 200th anniversary in 1983, and the late Chris Boyce, working in the Herald Library, proposed a number of science-fiction projects to mark the event. Though it took three years, the one which the paper eventually set up was an annual SF and fantasy short story competition for new writers, which I ran from 1986 to its sudden cancellation in 1992.  Many of the finalists went on to make their professional mark. Among them Janice Galloway, the second year’s winner, went on to become one of Scotland’s most prominent mainstream writers; Elsie Donald, a runner-up in 1986, won the competition in 1989; William King, runner-up in 1987, became a top writer for Warhammer.  Each year, the competition was followed by a 20-week ‘science fiction and writing’ course which I ran at Glasgow University’s Department of Adult & Continuing Education.  Out of the first year’s class the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle was formed, and from it a new stable of major writers have emerged, including Michael Cobley, Hal Duncan, Gary Gibson, Ian Hunter, William King and Neil Williamson – known in some quarters as ‘the new Glasgow Boys’ or ‘the Glasgow Mafia’.  The GSFWC celebrated its 30th anniversary in October 2016 by publishing an anthology of SF and fantasy by Scottish writers, Thirty Years of Rain  (Fig. 3).

The cover for Thirty Years of Rain with the glass dome like building and a red coloured sky
Fig. 3. Thirty Years of Rain cover, Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle, 2016

Back in 1983, another of Chris’s suggestions had been for such an anthology, which would be the first of its kind.  Prof. Edwin Morgan, Naomi Mitchison (later Dame Naomi) and Alasdair Gray all agreed to take part, but the paper didn’t go for it.  In 1988, however, the Director of the first Edinburgh International Science Festival, Howard Firth, commissioned me to create the anthology for his Orkney Press  (Fig. 4). 

It was Howie who suggested the title Starfield, with Edwin, Naomi and Alasdair as the stars  (Fig. 5).  Rather than focus on the past, I wanted the anthology to recognise the practioners who were still around, as well as the current ones and the new talents emerging in the competition and in the GSFWC.  The three ‘stars’ all felt they had a point to make by supporting the project.  Edwin Morgan’s SF poetry was highlighted in the book Star Gate, Science Fiction Poems of Edwin Morgan  (Third Eye Centre, 1979 – Fig. 6), and thereafter he frequently gave readings at science fiction conventions and other events including the book fair at the first Edinburgh Science Festival, saying that he would always honour requests from the SF community because “for the rest of the literary world, it’s as if a full third of my output doesn’t exist”.  Likewise at an earlier Glasgow convention an onlooker had exclaimed to me, “What’s Naomi Mitchison doing here?  She doesn’t write science fiction ” – but of course she did.  Much of Dame Naomi’s work was fantasy, but her Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) secured her a major place in SF at a time when most of it was written by and about men.  She was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, proofread The Lord of the Rings, and her description of it as “super science fiction” appeared on the Allen & Unwin editions for years before the books attained cult status. 

cover jacket of Stargate with Sun close up taking up most of the cover , tiny planetary boides revolving round it
Fig. 6. Stargate, Science Fiction Poems by Edwin Morgan, Third Eye Centre, 1979

Critical reaction to the ‘Unthank’ sections of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark had been mixed, to say the least, but Locus said that his next novel 1982 Janine “extends science fiction into the wilderness of a man’s mind”, and his next book, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, provided several stories for the Starfield anthology.  All three wanted to emphasise that they saw science fiction and fantasy as areas they could enter or draw upon at will, not as forbidden territory they had to stay out of.  I suggested that what made Scottish SF distinctive was a blend of the fantasy background with the later tradition of science and engineering:  it made for “science fiction with a strong sense of atmosphere, and fantasy with convincing detail.  It’s no coincidence that so many of us write in other fields, many of us in non-fiction”.  It seemed apt that the first professional anthology produced by the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, for the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, was called Shipbuilding  (Fig. 7).  

The next tier of writers included Chris Boyce, Angus McAllister  (Fig. 8), myself, and the late Archie Roy and Donald Malcolm, who had collaborated with Archie Roy on stories in the 1950s, followed by two novels, The Unknown Shore and The Iron Rain, in 1976.  I had been publishing SF stories since 1964, had been SF critic of the Herald from 1971 to 1985, and ran their short story competitions for the next six years.  Chris Boyce had come to critical notice with the stories ‘George’, ‘The Rig’  (Fig. 9)  and ‘Mantis’, published in SF Impulse in 1967, and won the Gollanz/Sunday Times prize with his first novel, Catchworld, in 1974, followed by Brainfix in 1980.  Archie Roy’s science-based thrillers had begun with Deadlight in 1968  (Fig. 10)  and continued with titles such as The Curtained Sleep, All Evil Shed Away and The Devil in the Darkness.  Angus McAllister had published The Krugg Syndrome in 1988, and more recently I’ve reviewed his novels Close Quarters and Cyber Puppets for ON  (15th and 22nd January, 2023).

 Since my own interaction with SF had begun with Angus MacVicar’s Lost Planet radio serials, starting in 1953, and Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke in 1954, just ended in 1988, I was delighted that Angus and Sydney agreed to contribute an Introduction and a cover, respectively, with the cover illustrating ‘The Rig’  (Fig. 5).  In building the anthology around the contributions of the three ‘stars’, I included all the competition judges and winners to date, and had the difficult task of deciding which runners-up would fit best into the sequence, as we handed over the baton to them.

Starfield was dedicated to the late Steven Prosterman, who had hoped to settle here and start a Scottish SF magazine, but died of a fall in New Orleans in 1989.  As the prospective editors, he and I had hoped to include the best of the ongoing competition entrants in the magazine, and for the best from the GWSFC, the magazine and the competition to be gathered in further yearly volumes of Starfield.  In retrospect, we were ahead of our time – sales of the book were limited by a perception, on both sides of the Atlantic and even in Scotland itself, that if it was ‘Scottish’ it had to be parochial.  I pointed out to one US editor that Ray Bradbury’s work was largely set in small-town America, and got the reply, “But his themes are cosmic!” which ours, supposedly, were not.  Very definitely that’s no longer the case.  Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Paul Macaulay, Charles Stross, Louise Welsh and ‘the new Glasgow Boys’ above. have surely changed the national and international perception of Scottish SF writers.  Eric Brown, Christopher Priest, Jane Yolen and Lisa Tuttle clearly don’t find it restricting to live here.  Sandi Cayless has staked out territory in Young Adult SF with her Sub Martis novels  (Fig. 11), in detective SF with The Ghost of Glow-Worm Alpha and in space opera with Arianrhod   (Fig. 12)  and more recently Arianrhod’s War.  The 2019 anthology Scotland in Space, edited by Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas, has introduced several new names to the Scottish writers list  (Fig. 13);  and right now, I’m reviewing In Ascension, by Martin McInnes of Edinburgh, for Shoreline of Infinity.

All that made it good to have Starfield back in print, with new introductory material, in a paperback edition by Shoreline of Infinity in 2018  (Fig. 14). 

the cover jacket of Starfield. Helicopter hovers over an oil rig out at sea with a giant flower like thing massive over both of them
Fig. 14. Shoreline of Infinity, 2018, Starfield Cover Spread

There have been other Scottish SF anthologies since its first publication – the GSFWC’s Shipbuilding (1995) and Nova Scotia, edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson (2005, Fig. 15), as well as Caledonia Dreamin’, edited by Hal Duncan and Chris Kelso (2013, Fig. 16) – and then Noel Chidwick and Mark Toner created a new platform for writers and others with Shoreline of Infinity  (Fig. 17), the first Scottish SF magazine since Nebula in the 1950s and Spectrum SF in 2000-2003.

There had been readings, music, poetry and drama in the past, but Shoreline of Infinity have put these on a regular basis with their Event Horizon programme of public performances.  So there are new Scottish SF creators, now, to set alongside their predecessors, and we can hope for many more to come.

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