Sunday, 23 December 2012

Scots cyberpunk

The Scottish archipelago as depicted
Map via
A while back I briefly mentioned Matthew Fitt's SF novel But n Ben A-Go-Go (Luath Press, 2000), but I finally got a copy and read it yesterday.

As SF, its genre is cyberpunk - "high tech and low life" - but with an unusual setting: an inundated Scotland in 2090 after God's Flood, a melting of the polar ice leaving only the highest mountain-tops above sea-level, most of the population living in Port, a floating megacity tethered to the sea-bed above the submerged Greenock. Disease is rife, from sun-induced skin cancer to the endemic "Mowdie", a virus that turns into a lethal form, "Senga", if carriers have actual sex (though virtual sex is possible in the cyberspace environment .

The protagonist is Paolo Broon, an ex-soldier who works as a "third-class cyberjanny", a kind of enforcer who retrieves data and captures errant employees for "Clart Central". His wife Nadia is incarcerated in a medical unit with Senga - a consequence of an affair with another unknown man. Paolo breaks from his routine life when Nadia's medical insurance runs out, losing the only legal routes to finding the DNA contact that can neutralise her virus. But he suspects that the contact is his estranged father, Diamond Broon, a vastly rich criminal mastermind incarcerated in a luxury prison, "Inverdisney", and resolves to seek him out. As it happens, Diamond - an ailing grotesque who has to be carried around by a giant Inuit bodyguard - is also seeking out Paolo, and via messages received through their respective shady contacts on VINE, their paths converge. Diamond escapes from prison to his luxury island hideout, But n Ben A-Go-Go, as Paolo, now pursued by keen young police lieutenant, swims 200km and braves the dangers of the arid 'Drylands' - sunstroke, renegade American survivalists, and mutant kelpies - to confront his father there.

I've delayed tackling But n Ben A-Go-Go for a long time because I thought it would be hard going: the unusual aspect of the novel I haven't mentioned so far is that it's written entirely in a vigorous broad Scots. A sample from the beginning, where Paolo is visiting Nadia in the Rigo Imbeki Medical Center:
Paolo’s ile-stoor resistant bitts squealed on the ceramic flair as he stepped back an glowered west alang Gallery 1083. It wis a summer Sunday forenoon the clatty end o January an the mile lang visitors’ corridor wis toom. A singil lawyer an her lycra-leggit secretary intromittit the silence, shooglin past on a courtesy electric caur. An indie-pouered germsooker jinked inconspicuously in and oot o Paolo’s personal space, dichtin up microscopic clart as it drapped aff his body.

A quarter mile doon, the wersh blinterin sun forced itsel in throu the UV filter gless at the corridor heid, illuminatin the faces an keek panels o the first fifty Omegas. An as he skellied intae the white bleeze, a troop o droid surveillance puggies advanced in heelstergowdie formation alang the corridor roof, skited by owre his heid an wi a clatter o mettalic cleuks, skittered awa eastwards doon the shadowy vennel. The toomness o the visitors’ corridor offered Paolo nae bield fae the buildin’s oorie atmosphere; Gallery 1083 wis an eerie airt wi or wioot passengers.
As it happened, it turned out to be very readable: about on a level with Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The author does help us along. As he mentions in the slightly too earnest intro, it is to some extent written in a contrived Scots, where unfamiliar words and any number of neologisms - "stoorsooker", "incendicowp", and so on - are well-framed by context. But on reflection, I'd quite forgotten the degree of familiarity I have from childhood: my grandmother had Scottish roots, subscribing to the Sunday Post and getting me Oor Wullie and The Broons annuals every year (before the days when they anglicized the captions); and my stepfather's family were fairly broad Scots speakers. I think that whatever the context provided, it helps with But n Ben A-Go-Go to have some familiarity with Scots vocabulary: no amount of context will tell you that "coup" (a rubbish dump) is pronounced "cowp", not "coo".

There's a certain level of pastiche to the whole novel. For anyone reasonably familiar with Scottish culture, it's hard not to associate Paolo Broon's name with Pa Broon of The Broons. And the portrayal of the floating city of Port has a lot in common with Megacity One in the SF comic 2000AD (which has considerable Scottish roots - see Scotland's influence on 2000AD's Judge Dredd). It has a similar style in its naming of buildings and institutions after contemporary figures; there's an Evelyn Glennie Music Faculty; a Lorne Gillies Square; and a sports team called Portic Thistle.

However, the novel isn't just an extended Scots joke. Its world is a very dark one, where a tropical storm can sink a city suburb, and characters are forced to unusual motivations: a tight legal system, and a powerful taboo about murder, constrain Paolo from any obvious and lethal solutions to his problems, and point up the sheer unpleasantness of his criminal father. Diamond's sole justification for refusing the DNA sample that will release Nadia from years of torment is "Ah am an awfie, awfie bad man".

If you like SF and languages, I highly recommend it.

Eurasis and Africa as depicted
Map via
Geeky aside: the geographical assumptions didn't ring quite true. Fitt's "Gods's Flood" - all polar ice melted - raises the sea level by 700 metres. The actual estimate is 70 metres. As with Marcus Sedgwick's Floodland, the pattern of inundation seems to be a fictional vehicle necessary to create a "waterworld" rather than a realistic one - or maybe the author just got the decimal point wrong.

- Ray

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