Thursday, July 31, 2014

Unsung Classics: Fitz James O'Brien

One of the interesting things about Irish literature is it's informed by a folk tradition full of magical thinking. This goes back to when the first Celtic tribes showed up on the islands and found the ruins of the neolithic Beaker People civilization - who may also be the reason behind the Germanic Substrate Hypothesis but that's for another time. Seeing all those ruins developed an idea in the early Irish of the Otherworld, a parallel land of spirits and fairies existing alongside but invisible to the everyday. It's a common belief in primitive cultures, being much closer to the feral realities of this world which civilized peoples try really hard to forget, but it's persisted in the Irish consciousness for generations.

Which brings us to Fitz James O'Brien, the progenitor of all American science fiction.


You've probably never heard of him, even if you went to college, because he died early in the Civil War. A volunteer from New York, he would just be one of the many Americans who died to end the horror of slavery if not for his enormous output of poetry and short stories, all marrying the feral folk beliefs of his boyhood with the optimistic scientism of the 19th century. The former providing a critique of the latter.

If you want - and you really do - you can see this in one of his more well known stories, "The Diamond Lens." It's a confessional piece, like many of his stories, relating how an inquisitive narrator delved deeper and deeper into the hidden world of microscopy - a new and exciting discipline at the time - until he discovered a subatomic fairyalnd. The story not only marries occultism with science, forming a proto-sci-fi-horror genre in its own, but also predicted the reality of subatomic particles by a generation!

Or there's his other stories, "The Golden Ingot" and "The Bohemian," all about resorting to the dark arts for material gain. Like "The Diamond Lens" and the later work of both Lovecraft and Alastair Reynolds, these stories lay out in visceral detail the tragedy that occurs when finite humans attempt to seize control of the infinite, shape it to their will. Similarly, "What Was It?" presents a world easily quantified by science but haunted by nightmarish, invisible creatures - "shaped like a man, - distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man... Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen. Gustave Doré, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived anything so horrible... It looked as if it were capable of feeding on human flesh."

And it all carries through because O'Brien was a master storyteller. In the hysterically racist "The Wondersmith," he describes a cunning gypsy testing his new army of little murderous puppets on a store full of birds in such a way as to make you weep. The doomed last stand of a mynah bird, in O'Brien's hands, resonates with all the glory of Cuchulain. His stories weave in details and build up characters so vivid that you'll never forget the decrepit Blakelock or the fascinating and menacing Philip Brann.

O'Brien himself was just as much of a character. Born Michael O'Brien, he changed his name to the much more Irish Fitz James upon emigrating to America. At a time when anti-Irish sentiment was at its height. And like all the best American authors he wrote widely and vigorously, producing a lifetime of work in the amount of time it takes modern "literary" writers to squirt out their first overwritten manuscript.

Then the Confederacy killed him. As if there weren't enough reasons to hate those wretched bastards...

No comments:

Post a Comment