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Visions of a bleak future in Rachael's fantasy world

Northern Ireland's sci-fi writers are enjoying a purple patch at the moment ... none more so than Belfast author Rachael B Kelly

By Malachi O'Doherty

The idea hit her when she was 15, but the book took 22 years to write. She was in a car on Stockman's Lane in Belfast, travelling towards the motorway, when suddenly she conceived the idea of a two-tiered city.

Which is kind of obvious from that perspective, I suggest. But this is the first time anyone has put it to her that Belfast, the very model of a modern divided city, could have been the template for her futuristic horror. Her eyes light up as if the suggestion has clicked.

Rachael B Kelly writes sci-fi and she is bewildered that a local tradition of writing sci-fi, horror, ghost stories, fantasy, or speculative fiction, to lump them all together, doesn't get the recognition it warrants.

We market this city as a globally important centre of poetry, but why not as a rich vein of sci-fi, too?

And we exchange names until the list of Irish writers of is quite long, including CS Lewis, Bram Stoker, Lord Dunsany, Bob Shaw and James White and Ian McDonald.

"There is an incredible amount of speculative fiction that has come out of Belfast and the island of Ireland, but, because they think it is not location-specific, that's why we tend not to associate authors with where they come from," says Rachael (37).

"When one writes literary fiction it is normally specific to the location the writer knows. Science fiction, by its nature, is placed elsewhere." Though she's a fan of Jo Zebedee, "who is writing fantastic science fiction that is based in Belfast".

This includes an alien invasion of Belfast which Rachael says "is fabulous".

Yet sci-fi from Belfast isn't detached from the city. Her own idea of a split city came to her in a car approaching the motorway, beyond which was west and north Belfast, the working-class part divided sharply from the more prosperous south.

Ian McDonald has said that he is powerfully influenced by the Troubles. He has described life in Belfast as "the perfect preparation for life in the 21st century". He says "the end game of empire is being played out here".

Bob Shaw was one of the first people I ever interviewed, in 1971, before his reputation had really taken off. He and White both worked in Shorts and became globally famous writers of sci-fi novels and were stars of the conference scene, too.

"People ask me about it all the time; why write sci-fi? I am always a bit surprised by that question because of the great tradition of speculative fiction that we have here," says Rachael.

She's also going to have a ghost story published, in an anthology. I tell her about a ghost story and some sci-fi stories I have written myself then try to sound out her influences.

Star Trek or Star Wars? Star Trek. Right answer. The Daleks or the Borg? The Daleks. Wrong answer.

Her book Edge of Heaven is in the tradition of big doorstop volumes.

When I first loved sci-fi novels they were small and could fit in your pocket. You might sit up all night and read a whole John Wyndham or Michael Moorcock.

Even more recently one of the great classics of modern sci-fi, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, an account of a father and son trying to find refuge in a post-calamity America, was a small book.

And given that most sci-fi writers, including Rachael herself, started with short stories, you'd think the instinct for concision and economy would stay with them.

"I really was surprised. I thought the publisher was going to come back and ask for significant cuts but they were happy to go with the text almost as is."

She is grateful to her editors for suggesting re-ordering of the structure in places and says something few writers have ever said - even if they have thought it.

"I actually feel a bit bad, because I am going to get the credit for structural changes that have really made it more powerful. I can't write short. I went through this book to try to cut away a tenth of it and it was longer when I had finished," she says.

So Edge of Heaven is 160,000 words long.

"But some of the Harry Potter books are at least 100,000 words more than that," she adds.

Like Ian McDonald, she creates worlds and needs space in which to describe them and apparently publishers allow for this.

A standard work of literary fiction - say an Ian McEwen - will be 80,000 words long, but a genre novel will be a 150,000.

Rachael says her interest in writing was encouraged by a "fantastic" teacher at Methodist College, Belfast.

"Mr Hollywood was really enthusiastic for literature and this was infectious. I was already writing at this stage and he took that seriously. That is the sort of teacher that you remember."

While at Methodist College, she had a dissertation to write and chose the theme of dystopic science fiction. She was exploring bleak ideas.

"In general, we had a really good English department there and we did have a lot of freedom to develop our interests," she says. "My teacher pointed me towards books I hadn't read, like Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World."

After A-levels, she went to the University of Ulster to do media studies and returned later for her PhD.

Rachael's first book was drawn from her doctoral research. Mark Antony and Popular Culture: Masculinity and the Construction of an Icon has one review on Amazon, but, like most academic books these days, is far too expensive for most of us to buy.

She was surprised when her book was contracted by Liberties Press in Dublin, which had never done sci-fi before. Liberties is doing a lot of Northern Irish writers right now.

They published Janet Shepperson and Jan Carson this year and will publish Tara West's new memoir next month.

So, at least one busy Irish publisher is putting faith in the reader's desire to have actual pages to turn and not just to read off the phone.

She says she is concerned about issues of identity and division, what constitutes the self "and what will constitute the self as artificial intelligence evolves".

Her two-tiered city, infested by a deadly virus, is about the bleakest vision one could have of the future and yet she insists she is optimistic. And that starts us batting around a few ideas.

I suggest that our chances are slim. Nature squanders life. There are probably millions of other planets trying the experiment of a semi-rational biped with thumbs and nature only needs one or two of them to survive the discovery of nuclear energy to get the next stage going. We're hardly likely to be the one that gets through.

And she laughs.

"There is that idea out there that we exist, therefore we were always going to exist and the arrogance that comes with that as well. It's fascinating. I just think that the next big paradigm shift for humanity is the discovery of life somewhere else. It must - and possibly has - existed elsewhere in our solar system before our time. And once that happens, that has to change the way we view ourselves."

Of course, the game is over if we exhaust the planet's resources before getting another planet to plunder, or if Yellowstone Park blows up.

"Yellowstone is looking worrying," she says. "It has to erupt again, but it could be tomorrow, or it could be in 1,000 years. But I reckon we'll think of something."

She says there is a solution to the resources problem, too.

"If we don't start exploiting mineral resources off-world before they run out down here, then we are scuppered." So we should be mining asteroids.

  • Rachael B Kelly's Edge of Heaven is published by Liberties Press

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