A Brilliant Void
Edited by Jack Fennell
In A Brilliant Void, writer and translator Jack Fennell introduces us to fifteen dark tales, wrought with technological anxiety and scientific scepticism, by Irish writers from the late 19th and early 20th century. The collection is framed as Science Fiction stories, an artistic genre which has historically done much to shape public understanding of technological changes and their implications on the broader society. However, the Sci-Fi thread which supposedly ties these stories together can feel tenuous at times, with some qualifying either through slight allusion to some scientific process or by mere virtue of being set in the future.
As noted by Fennell, Irish Sci-Fi has often been subject to derision due to its supposedly inherent inability to transcend parochialism, declaring, “Parochialism is only a demerit if we assume that there’s something embarrassing or defective about our culture”. And true to form the stories here which seem least concerned with that sense of wider appeal tend to be the better ones, due to their resulting authenticity. ‘The Exile’, by Cathal Ó Sándair, and ‘The Sorcerer’, by Charlotte McManus, are two fine examples.
Nonetheless, there are struggles within this anthology, as ‘The Age of Science’ by, Frances Power Cobbe, broadly demonstrates. Told in the form of a satirical newspaper column from a dystopian, technocratic future (1977, in fact), this news-snippet highlights the ludicrous nature of women’s under-representation in society and politics, as well as the nefarious and trivial ways in which science has pervaded everyday life. While the subject matter here is prescient, the piece itself becomes convoluted and proves to be an arduous read. And this is, unfortunately, true with a number of the stories featured. One fears that Fennell, in compiling the collection, may have allowed the pertinence of the stories’ central theme to take precedence over the prose itself.
In a time where the lines between science fiction and real life can seem blurry, exploring what our literary ancestors envisaged in the future can be a fascinating venture. Especially when one considers the time frame in question here: Ireland was a country straddling two centuries, attempting to reconcile its superstitious past with its desire for modernity. In this sense, Fennell has attempted an ambitious and admirable project in collating this anthology. And yet A Brilliant Void ultimately falls slightly short. The problem, one which would be admittedly hard to avoid given the task, lies with the fact that there’s simply not much in the way of new content here. The majority of A Brilliant Void’s central concepts – Lunar travel, anti-aging potions, reanimation – have been rehashed and re-factored so many times in the century hence that the reader is left with scant new territory to explore beyond novelty. On the one hand, ardent proponents of overlooked Irish literature may revel in this collection of beguiling curiosities from the past, but I fear the casual reader, Sci-Fi fan or not, may simply be left bemused and underwhelmed. Ultimately, it comes down whether one wishes to view A Brilliant Void as a time capsule or an oracle.
Words: Ryan Lally