Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O'Brien's Surprising Synthesis

By Nolan, Val | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O'Brien's Surprising Synthesis


Nolan, Val, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Providing a locus of collision between Ireland's rich fantasy tradition and the twentieth century's idiom of science and technology, Flann O'Brien's fiction represents a unique--and uniquely Irish--form of speculative writing. While Einsteinian readings of O'Brien have been performed before, as have analyses of the author's folkloric satires, it is worth considering O'Brien's writing as a bridge between these two traditions, a synthesis of O'Brien's scientific literacy with the pervasiveness of fantastical notions in the Irish mindset of his day. Central to this is his recurring character de Selby who, through fantastical and technological irresponsibility, embodies both sides of the divide between tradition and modernity and so challenges any clear distinction between the two) Functioning as a forward-looking, fake-scientist counterpart to that backward-looking, real-life mathematician and Ireland's "other de," Eamon de Valera, de Selby personifies O'Brien's tongue-in-cheek combination of atomic theory, relativity, and time travel with parodic representations of spirituality, a project which culminates in The Dalkey Archive (1964) with the character's attempts to use an artificially created element to destroy the world in the name of God.

Throughout his career, O'Brien's use of language and reference aimed not to reject the Gaelic tradition but to incorporate aspects of Irish fantasy into a new scientific age. In the aftermath of mass industrialisation, along with the World War and mooted nuclear destruction that characterised the era of The Third Policeman's composition (and, later, the dystopian, post-War condition of Europe, let alone the Iron Curtain years in which The Dalkey Archive was written), O'Brien uses de Selby to satirise not only the rampant, destructive pace of change and progress, but also a parochial Irish imagination to which all science is not just science fictional, but, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, "indistinguishable from magic" (Clarke 36).

In an Irish context, this term "magic" is further indistinguishable from that of "fantasy" and is apparent not only in the supernatural strain of traditional Irish culture and literature--the prevalence of fairies, witches and so on in folklore and, subsequently, written forms--but also through the belief in and deference to the various characters and dogmas of the Catholic faith, a facet of Irish social history which constitutes systematised fantasy on a grand scale and little more than the practice of magical rites and rituals by another name. While there is often an ambiguously parodic element in O'Brien's depiction of the latter (who is he actually mocking?), I wish to focus instead on his portrayal of the confrontation between the rational and the irrational, a conflict characteristic of much of the Irish fantasy tradition. This tension between logic and lunacy is one of the fundamental aspects of O'Brien's writing, and one which anticipates the contemporary unease with just how increasing technological progress can be squared with our traditional past.

O'Brien, it should be made clear, was not writing to fit any specific genre conventions; nevertheless he has left us with texts such as The Third Policeman (written 1939-40, published 1967) and The Dalkey Archive which bear the fingerprints of multiple, modern generic subdivisions. Whether these divisions are artistically valid or simply market artefacts is not the issue here; what is important is how O'Brien's writing appeals to, and is often consciously claimed by, a variety of generic categories with markedly distinct reading codes and audiences. For instance, The Third Policeman was initially rejected by O'Brien's publishers on the grounds that its imaginative and textual hijinks did not correspond with the expectations of the company's literary readership. The author should "become less fantastic," Longmans said (Cronin 23), while, in the early twenty-first century, this same book is easily read as "an absurd science fiction novel" (quoted in Hopper, 2011). …

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