Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach
During the last few decades the global success of “tartan noir” has overshadowed the significant contribution made by Scotland’s writers to the weird and fantastique. Except possibly for Iain M Banks, the country’s current set of science fiction and fantasy writers are little known outside their chosen field, but this hasn’t stopped the likes of Ken MacLeod, Richard Morgan, Charles Stross and Hannu Rajaniemi from following Banks’s example and regularly giving English-language science fiction some well-aimed kicks up the arse.
Whether Seattle-born Tim Armstrong is set to join their number is yet to be seen, but his debut science fiction novel—launched at this month’s Aye Write! book festival in Glasgow—is certainly groundbreaking in one respect. It’s written in Gaelic. Given that its speakers are generally numbered in five figures, you might wonder why life-long science fiction fan Tim—by day, an academic at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye—chose to write Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach (which translates as On a Glittering Black Sea) for what must be, by definition, an incredibly small potential readership.
Tim insists, however, that it is a “really exciting time” to be writing and reading in Gaelic. “In general, successful modern language revivals are always accompanied, and often even preceded, by a modern literary revival,” he points out. “The Ùr-Sgeul imprint revolutionized the Gaelic novel during the last 10 years. While Ùr-Sgeul was brought to a close at the end of last year, there is still a lot going on in modern Gaelic literature. So it was both an artistic and political decision to write a science-fiction novel in Gaelic.”
In any case, how else could Tim write a novel with the central conceit that, in space, everybody speaks Gaelic? “I grew up with sci-fi movies and TV shows where everyone spoke West Coast urban American English, so for me it’s no less weird that Hans Solo would be at the controls of the Millennium Falcon and speaking Gaelic than speaking in my dialect of West Coast American English. When you write a present day, ‘realistic’ novel, you have to deal with the language question—will you write the dialogue as if everyone’s speaking Gaelic, when realistically almost everywhere it would be mostly in English? Do you then just write the ‘scaffolding language’ in Gaelic? In this novel, I was able to create a universe where Gaelic is the default language.”
Tim accepts, though, that he had to think carefully about the inevitable scientific and technological terminology that his space opera novel demanded. “It wasn’t as big a challenge as I’d originally expected,” he admits. “Thanks to the work being done in Gaelic schools, teaching scientific subjects, the language is now naturally acquiring a scientific vocabulary, but I did have to do some research—how do you say ‘Let’s go to warp speed!’ in Gaelic?—and attempt to assemble appropriate terms.”
Tim soon realised that, while it might be ‘more authentic’ to derive new terms from appropriate Gaelic roots, on occasions it is actually better to borrow from so-called English. “It’s not actually ‘English’, of course; the international vocabulary of science and technology is based on two ‘dead’ languages, Greek and Latin, and sometimes it’s actually better to go down that road,” he says. “It’s just tough for Gaelic speakers because we have the bad luck of our neighbour language being the giant international language of communication about science and technology. Even though you know these terms actually come from Greek and Latin, they feel like borrowings from English.”
So what does Tim think science fiction can bring to the Gaelic language? “I hope I’m not overstating my case, but I really believe that in the post-modern, 21st century world, it’s very hard for a minority language to stay vital without a vital literary scene—and specifically without science fiction,” he says. “A lot of the most common terminology we use for science and technology did not come from nerds in labs; they were created by science fiction writers and then adopted by nerds in labs! I believe that any vital modern language benefits from a lively science fiction literary scene to develop the vocabularies and discourses that are necessary to live in a world filled with ever-advancing science and technology.
“With a language that’s threatened as much as Gaelic, having a genre that’s explicitly talking about the future—and taking Gaelic into the future—is also really important,” Tim adds. “So, on many different levels, I hope [this book] is valuable. I hope it’s a good story, that people like reading it, and find it a way to engage with Gaelic.”
As someone who was not a native speaker, Tim certainly feels he knows the Gaelic language better now. “I had a lot of Gaelic writing experience before I started this, but it still something else to write a novel,” he says. “As a Gaelic learner, it was a very important milestone for me to do it. It really forced me to up my game. I sat down with one of the best Gaelic dictionaries and just read it, page after page, taking notes, to build up the sort of 20-30,000 word vocabulary you need to write a novel in Gaelic. It was a great experience for me, and I have much better Gaelic as a result of it.”