We’re talking to Tim Armstrong, author of AIR CUAN DUBH DRILSEACH

17 May

Debut science fiction novels are not uncommon, but there’s one thing that immediately sets Seattle-born Tim Armstrong’s On a Glittering Black Sea apart from all other science fiction published this year in the UK. It’s not necessarily the worlds his characters inhabit — an advanced autocratic and hyper-capitalist civilisation, linking several planets and space stations. Nor is it the feel of the novel, which Tim suggests “shifts between whimsy and menace, with elements of space-opera adventure, dark cyberpunk, romance, and rock-band road trip all mixed together.” No, it’s much simpler than that: it’s that the title on the cover reads Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach, and you won’t be able to read the novel unless you have a pretty good understanding of Scottish Gaelic. Paul Cockburn spoke to Tim before his book launch at the recent Aye Write! Book Festival in Glasgow.


Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach
Tim Armstrong
Clàr, PPB £9.99

Paul F Cockburn: The obvious question is, why write a science fiction novel in Gaelic?

Tim Armstrong: About ten years ago, I was in a Gaelic punk rock band. I didn’t go into that thinking: “Oh, I’m going to make a punk rock band in Gaelic.” I’d been listening and playing punk since I was a kid, I was learning Gaelic… it just seemed natural. With the novel, it’s kind of the same equation. Living and working on Skye I speak and use Gaelic every day, and I’ve written a lot of non-fiction in Gaelic. First and foremost I just wanted to write a science fiction novel, but it seemed right to do so in Gaelic.

What’s your interest in the genre?

I had problems with reading when I was younger, so I came to reading late. I was about twelve; in one year, I went from pre-kindergarten to Advanced High School level. They threw me in the advance reading class, and they were reading Frank Herbert’s Dune; that was the first adult book I ever read. I’ve been a science fiction reader ever since. Just now, my favourite author is Iain M Banks. I love the anarcho-socialist paradise he created in his Culture novels — it makes me so happy and hopeful to read about the Culture and its silly/wise ships, though actually my favourite novel by Banks is The Algebraist, which doesn’t feature the Culture at all. I am particularly interested in how technology alters the power equation in society and challenges our understanding of the human condition. That challenge is ever accelerating and, in that respect, I believe that science fiction is the most relevant genre of literature in the 21st century.

Is your novel set in a Gaelic future, or is it just a future being described in Gaelic?

One of the conceits in the novel is that everybody speaks Gaelic. I grew up with sci-fi movies in which everyone spoke with my dialect of English — they spoke West Coast urban American English, so for me it’s no less weird an idea to imagine Hans Solo at the controls of the Millennium Falcon speaking in Gaelic than in West Coast American English. That’s one of the fun things sci-fi has allowed me to do. When you write a realistic novel set in the present, you have to deal with the language question; will you write the dialogue as if everyone’s speaking Gaelic when, realistically, it would be mostly in English, and then just write the scaffolding language in Gaelic? In this novel, I was able to create world where Gaelic is the default language.

Did you face problems when it came to scientific terminology?

It wasn’t as big a challenge as I expected; because of the work being done in schools, teaching scientific subjects in Gaelic. The language is naturally acquiring a scientific vocabulary. I did a small amount of creation as well, specifically the sort of things you find in space opera. How do you say “Let’s go to Warp Speed!” in Gaelic? But it’s a judgement call. While it may seem more authentic to work from Gaelic roots, it’s actually better on occasion to borrow from the international vocabulary of science and technology, which is based on two “dead” languages, Greek and Latin. But it is 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 come from Greek and Latin, they feel like borrowings from English.

What would you say science fiction can bring to the Gaelic language? And, indeed, what can Gaelic offer science fiction?

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. In English, a lot of the most common terminology we use for science and technology often came into the language first through science fiction. It’s important to Gaelic for the same reason. I also think that, for a language that’s threatened as much as Gaelic, having a genre that’s explicitly talking about the future and taking Gaelic into that future is also really important. As for what Gaelic brings to science fiction, maybe I’ll answer that by broadening it out to what multilingualism brings to the world? I think it would be a very sad world if we were all reduced down to English language speakers. I think that it’s great that the world is multilingual. It would be great if science fiction became more multilingual; that’s got to be healthy and interesting, so I would hope that, just in general, there would be more science fiction appearing in minority languages. It’s a big ask, but it’s also a healthy thing.

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