A History Maker

James Hogg Statue and St Mary’s Loch, Scottish Borders

A History Maker, by Alasdair Gray (Canongate, 1994)

This is a Scottish science fiction novel about a flawed utopia and a misfit who unwittingly brings about necessary change.  As the title suggests, it’s also about the role history plays in how we think about the present, particularly the tendency to think in terms of historical epochs.  And about how disastrously wrong we can be.  You might remember Francis Fukuyama and all that nonsense about The End of History when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

Gray opens with a quote that sets the tone for the whole novel:

Economics: Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need.  In historical times this word was used by British governments and their advisers to mean political housekeeping – the art of keeping their bankers, brokers and rich supporters well supplied with money, often by impoverishing other householders.  They used the Greek instead of the English word because it mystified folk who had not been taught at wealthy schools.  The rhetoric of plutocratic governors needed economics as the sermons of religious governments needed the Will of God.  (From The Intelligence Archive of Historical Jargon.)

Alasdair Gray

Spot on.  Can’t say fairer than that.  Set in the early 23rd century, the world has changed beyond recognition.  Biogeneticists have created powerplants that tower into the sky, their roots tapping into geothermal energy, to provide households with all their food and everything but the bulkiest of household goods.  They even extrude the living quarters where extended families raise their children communally and monogamy is a thing of the past.

As a result, there is now a domestic economy with no need for money or government, and people no longer have to live in cities.  Women are literally instrumental in supplying the necessities of life, through their ability to play them into existence on the keyboard of the powerplant. It’s an intuitive art akin to music, though Gray doesn’t say why men could not do the same.

Men no longer have any crucial role to play in their communities, apart from those who leave Earth for the Moon and Solar System to prepare those places for human expansion, or go into science and the entertainment industry.  Their new role is to become warriors in televised battles, based on a region’s history.  The battles are real, brutal, lethal, and while medical science can regrow hacked-off limbs, people still die.  It’s all strictly regulated by a future version of the Geneva Convention to ensure that the domestic economy is not harmed.  Young girls stick posters of their favourite warriors on their walls and, since a warrior’s function between battles is to maintain the population, have a good prospect of bearing their children.

Not everyone is happy.  Wat Dryhope is a misfit – he’s been to the Moon and returned because he can’t bear the loss of Earth and the past it represents.  As a warrior, he’s still discontent because there are no real consequences (apart from his death) of the battles fought for television audiences.  At heart, he wants monogamy and something to fight for that really matters.

I said this is Scottish science fiction, and it is deeply rooted in that country’s history, but it’s also set in a very specific place – St Mary’s Loch in the Scottish Borders.  So the historically appropriate form of warfare is a recreation of the battles between the Borders and Northumbria that occurred for centuries during the Middle Ages and beyond.  There’s also a touch of the football teams about them in the way they’re presented on television – Borders United v. Northumbria United.

Dryhope Tower, where Wat’s mum lives

Wat Dryhope is the catalyst for change in this very civilized, but somewhat smug, matriarchy.  He pulls off an audacious, only just within the rules, draw for Clan Ettrick against overwhelming odds, becoming a world-wide celebrity.  Unknown to him, a few other misfits in the entertainment industry are pumping up the publicity to destabilize society.  It begins to work as pressure builds for bigger and better battles, creating a new appetite for militarism.  And there’s worse to come – he’s about to meet the love of his life.

I’ll not say more.  This is a stunning, complex novel, with roots deep in Scottish history and culture.  The story is told by the characters, first Wat’s mother, representing the matriarchy, and then Wat’s account of the 7 days encompassed by the novel.  At the end, she adds a section called Notes & Glossary Explaining the Obscurities, an essential coda to the story.  And there are some splendid illustrations and maps by the author, which work together with the text to bring out the ethos of this society.

I can’t recommend A History Maker too highly.

St Mary’s Loch