This is the unedited version of my "Perspective" piece for the Scotsman on the relationship between science fiction, politics and Scotland (printed version here). All comments welcome, as usual.
Pat Kane: Beam us Scotties up, Alex
Published in Scotsman on Friday 15 June, 2012
“He canna Scotland see what yet/Canna see the infinite/And Scotland in true scale to it”. As far back as Hugh Macdiarmid (and maybe even as far back as the Brahan Seer) Scotland has had a complex relationship with the future - both the future you want to bring about, and the future you want to prevent happening.
Whether it’s Star Trek’s Scotty chirpily tweaking his dilithum crystals to full capacity, or Robert Louis Stevenson predicting that medical science could allow us to unleash our inner monster, we do the future in Scotland like we do most things: to aye be where extremes meet.
The unofficial slogan of the new Scotland - “work as if you were in the early days of a better nation”, quoted from the top politicians downwards - comes from Alasdair Gray’s 1981 dystopian novel Lanark. This portrays a totalitarian future Glasgow as ‘Unthank’, its ruling classes involved in grisly genetic experiments and mind-control. Gray’s hopeful, optimistic slogan defies the darkness of his own book.
There seems to be a fruitful (if not exclusive) relationship between science-fiction and independence politics at the moment. Alex Salmond is the first politician to be honoured as a “Starfleet Officer” in the world’s largest Star Trek fan organisation. Salmond is a self-confessed “Trekkie”, revealing in 2010 that he would pretend to be the hyper-rationalist Vulcan Spock in his schoolboy bedroom mirror, making and hoarding audio recordings of the original 60s tv series.
Fellow SNP leading light Rosanna Cunningham is also a Trekkie. “It’s the ultimate ‘what-if?”, she once said - a understandable passion for a progressive nationalist to adopt. Noted SF authors like Mark Millar and Iain Banks have firmly nailed their colours to the independence mast. Our first Makar, Edwin Morgan, is famous both for integrating SF into his poetry - his poem “The First Men on Mercury” is a staple in Scottish schools - and also for magicking up a million pounds to fund the Yes campaign.
There’s no automatic SF-independence link, though. That refined-looking ex-Doctor-Who, David Tennant, is a staunch Labourite. And in these very pages, Iain Gray - not previously known for his matter-transporting tendencies - displayed an intimate understanding of the “Culture” framework that lies behind Iain “M” Banks’ science-fiction novels. Who would have guessed that behind Mr Gray’s thrawn exterior, his imagination thrilled to the prospect of a hedonistic, body-morphing galactic civilization?
But it’s worth dwelling a little on how science-fiction sits with the imagination of policy in general. The Nobel prize-winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman, scourge of austerity and inflexible economic management across the globe, is actually the fan-boy of a Edinburgh SF author called Charles Stross.
They’ve debated and discussed in science-fiction conventions, with the Nobellist thrilling to Stross’s careering tales of abundant technology causing crime, carnival and perversion. An economist who urges us to be creative with our collective indebtedness - but who also loves SF visions of scarcity being abolished, in the era of robots, nano-tech and synthetic biology. Surely some connection there.
The relationship between science-fiction and politics/policy cannot, by definition, be predictable. Arthur C. Clarke may have strongly advised that “politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories”, because “one of the biggest roles of SF is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind”. Yet that flexibility can go into very extreme areas.
America is key here. Whether it’s Kennedy’s space-race conducted in the era of Star Trek, or Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile shield shaped by SF author Jerry Pournelle, to the connections between games designers, movie scriptwriters and defense research departments in the current era. (Not to mention Obama’s love of robot drone killings as a way to fight Al-Qaida). There has always been a live dynamic between American supremacy and expansionism, and science-fiction dreaming.
The US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency - or DARPA - seems unashamedly targeted at bringing about the more militial visions of SF into reality. Robot soldiers, digital telepathy, invisibility cloaks, brain implants... all in the service of “full spectrum dominance”.
Look at the coming slate of Hollywood’s SF blockbuster movies for 2013, and most of them are about future war of one kind or another - featuring characters that are poster-boys (and sometimes girls) for the kind of cyborg futures and human enhancements that many forecasters think will be the big commercial industries of the next fifty years.
Who could soften us up for a certain kind of post-human future better than the effortlessly cool Robert Downey Jnr in Iron Man - the guy who made his fortune from military research, yet still wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt over his nuclear-powered heart?
Does it matter that our science-fiction imaginations are over-conditioned by America? SF advocates often proclaim loudly about not being interested in such puny limits as national boundaries - while peddling US values in almost every other mainstream production.
Surely one of the attractions of the revived Doctor Who franchise, and its Torchwood spin-off, is that this is a defiantly “British” (though recently largely English) take on the vistas of the future. Agatha Christie battling giant alien wasps in her refectory. Latexed baddies with impeccable RP accents launching galactic domination from, er, Cardiff. Gentle explorations of bashful sexuality between Time-Lords and their assistants.
ITV’S Primeval treads the same ground, with its shilpit heroes dodging velociraptors in the aisles of your local Lidl’s. The soon-to-be-revived BBC space comedy series Red Dwarf is even more explicitly counter-American - where Scousers and Estuary Men deflate their cartoon Yank associates, inside wobbly Airfix-style space crates.
Yet still, it’s hard to think of an SF future on the screen which has anything like a Scottish derivation or locus. More often than not, we’re set dressing: whether it’s Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch, 70s Glasgow as gloomy backdrop to the ultimate surveillance society; or next year’s World War Z with Brad Pitt, where the same city stands in for Philadelphia as the battleground for a future zombie war.
If the budgets are much, much lower - basically, ink on a page - Scotland makes it into the SF imaginary. Ken McLeod’s left-libertarian alternative futures often use the locales of his background - Plockton, Lochcarron and Miavaig - as theatres for his space opera.
“I’ve made them the battlefields of wars both guerilla and global”, he wrote recently. “Crashed flying saucers and tactical nukes into them. Crushed them under the mechanical sprawl of runaway artificial intelligences. Choked them with mutant jungles. Made their sea-lochs ring with the din of spaceship yards. Settled their villages with ageless retirees scoffing illegal life-extension drugs. Carpeted their roofs and walls with thick insulation against the big freeze as the Gulf Stream downshifts”.
Millar and Morrison are well-known for interpolating random Scots into their futurescapes. Both are graduates of the comic 2000AD, whose spokesman Micheal Molcher recently said that “our success rests on a whole coterie of Scottish writing talent that has joined us over the years. Our Scottish writers” - like John Wagner and Alan Grant, creators of Judge Dredd - “lend a specific voice to the publication, which is cynical, satirical, sarcastic and darkly humorous. 2000AD really does excel at the subversive, anti-establishment, Scottish voice – and that voice is the comic's success."
“We’ll get by selling cars”, sings Micheal Marra in his song Australia Instead of the Stars, wryly lamenting the failure of Dundee inventor Sandy Kidd’s anti-gravity gyroscope. “We know what we are”. But what do we want to be? Perhaps alongside the grim urban “murrdurrs” and Celtic sentimentalities of Pixar’s Brave, we could ask our image-merchants (tv, film and games) to raise themselves to the challenge of creating some audio-visual Scottish science fiction worthy of the name.
Who will rise to the challenge of producing Gray’s Lanark, or Banks’s Culture, or Morgan’s interplanetary meditations, or McLeod’s techno-highlands for our screens? More than another retread of the William Wallace story, I’d like to see the national imagination boldly going where no Jock Tamson has gone before. At the very least, you’ll get support for that from quite a few space cadets in Holyrood - on both sides of the aisle.