The Country on the Edge of Forever

If you map it, it will come?

“My stories try to seduce the reader by disguising themselves as sensational entertainment, but are propaganda for democratic welfare-state Socialism and an independent Scottish parliament.”
Alasdair Gray

How many stories have you heard where the Axis won the Second World War?

Even before the war was over, stories of the Thousand Year Reich were published: Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, written in 1937, started the trend which has almost become a subgenre in itself. Some of the foremost science fiction authors of the age, such as Isaac Asimov, David Brin, Fritz Leiber, & Norman Spinrad, wrote tales on this theme; some books, like Robert Harris’ Fatherland, were adapted to film; one of Star Trek’s most celebrated episodes (written by Harlan Ellison) featured this as a poignant dilemma. This has lasted into the new millennium: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was adapted into a hit series, as was Len Deighton’s SS-GB. It is understandable for so much fiction to revolve around this supermassive gravity well in our planetary history given the way the conflict shaped so much of humanity’s consciousness decades later.

What if we go to a Point of Divergence further back in time: what if the Confederacy won the American Civil War? Again, there are dozens of books on that subject, a mockumentary, and a recently-announced television series from the showrunners behind A Game of Thrones. Naturally, it’s more an American phenomenon, but it remains the deadliest war in United States history, and all the more bitter for its internecine nature.

How about further than even that – what if the Roman Empire never fell? Going on the alternative history database Uchronia, searching for “Roman”  yields 116 results (& another 77 for “Rome”) – that means 116 books, essays, or stories involving the Roman Empire or Ancient Rome. What if Elizabeth of England failed/was killed & the Spanish Armada triumphed?  Searching for “English” or “England” yields 94/129 results; “British” or “Britain” 189 /153 results.

What about Scotland?

Why should Ossian sing of battles? For never more shall my steel shine in war. I remember the days of my youth with grief; when I feel the weakness of my arm. Happy are they who fell in their youth, in the midst of their renown! They have not beheld the tombs of their friends, or failed to bend the bow of their strength. – “The War of Caros”

We Scots started our Alternate History adventures early: the Declaration of Arbroath put forward a creation myth of Scota & Gathelos in direct opposition to Edward’s claims of English Dominion based upon Brutus of Troy’s conquest of the British Isles. More recently, none other than Walter Scott posed a third Jacobite Rising, this time in 1765, in 1824’s Redgauntlet. Historian Murray Pittock suggests James MacPherson’s Ossian saga was “a coded work of Jacobitism, providing an alternative history of an independent Scotland.” Yet in a great many alternate histories, even ones with points of divergence prior to 1707, the United Kingdom still exists: sometimes at the heart of a sprawling British Empire, sometimes the lonely bastion against some other Empire which filled the vaccuum – as if world-sprawling empires were natural occurrences across the multiverse.

It’s interesting that even alternate historians seem to think a 300-year-old union seems all but inevitable, when Scotland & England were distinct, thriving, independent nations for over twice as long each.

But there are examples of independent Scotlands which survive to modern times. Harry Turtledove’s Agent of Byzantium series has Caledonia as one of the few European nations not under the rule of a Roman Empire which lasted into the 14th Century, and Gunpowder Empire suggests that Caledonia might survive outside Rome’s control even until the late 21st Century; Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist is set in an alternate 1930s Scotland as an independent member of a New Hanseatic League, with England part of an opposing European Federation that rose following Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo; Bruno Fosesca’s Fashoda proposes an independent Scotland (and Wales!) in 1902, only to then be annexed by “Britain” when Germany starts to get ideas two decades later; Alistair Strang’s State of Independence supposes that Scotland became independent at the turn of the 20th Century: Jeff Fallow’s All Hail Macbeth spins a burlesque of one Archie Macbeth’s rise to power in an independent Socialist Republic of Scotland. A particularly interesting example is Danijel Milutinović’s Prošlost u ogledalu (The Past in a Mirror), set in a mirror universe where it is the UK rather than Yugoslavia which fractures.

Celtic Republics/Alliances/Empires are quite common choices for alternate histories, such as this one.

In the interests of my blood pressure, I’m not going to bother with the tiresome scribbles of “what if Scotland votes/voted Yes in 2014” articles, which are frequently as facetious and ill-informed as the average newspaper editorial, as illustrated by this satire of “satire.” I will, however, link to this lovely entry in Anthony St. Clair’s Rucksack Universe. Nonetheless, some books use 2014 as a Point of Divergence in their fiction, either literally or figuratively: Sarah Hall’s 2016 book The Wolf Border treats Scotland as an independent nation, even as the story is mostly set in England.

Alternatively, there are some stories where Scotland is notable for its absence. Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, set in 1976 England in a world where the Reformation did not happen, doesn’t have a single reference to Scotland – though, ominously, Ireland exists as “West England,” and the British Isles as the “English Isles.” It seems optimistic to suppose that Scotland – or Wales, for that matter – still exists as a nation in this already dystopian universe. Similarly, I think it’d be extremely charitable to consider the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Doomsday an example of an independent Scotland, what with that gigantic wall and everything.

Tavish Finnegan “Demoman” DeGroot of Team Fortress 2 is one of our finest representatives in the medium of video games, so it is glorious that X-Com 2 allows players the option of recreating the Ullapool hero.

But it’s future history that’s most interesting of all to me.* Charles Stross imagines an independent Scottish Republic by 2016 in 2007’s Halting State. Graham Dunstan Martin depicts a post-nuclear apocalyptic world in 1986’s Time-Slip, where Scotland is (as the moment, incredibly optimistically) one of the few surviving nations. Paul Johnson’s Quint Darymple series is set in the independent city-state of Edinburgh, a playful comment on Scottish independence. In the realm of video games, while it’s never stated outright, the presence of a Scottish flag & nationality in the X-Com games (& in X-Com 2, even accents!) suggests the possibility of an independent Scotland, especially since there is no option for Wales or England aside from a UK flag & nationality. Most famously, the 2000 AD universe outright states that Scotland became independent once again some time before the year 2050, when the Flying Scotsmen faced the Harlem Heroes in 2000AD Prog 12-15.

We have it easy with another 33 years to get our independence in time for the World Aeroball Championships: poor Ireland only has 7 to get it together, according to Star Trek: The Next Generation!

So, while not as oversaturated as the Hitler Wins and South Wins markets, the possibility of an independent Scotland is far from untapped in fiction and theory. It’s just a shame that the default in most future fiction – from decades-running Doctor Who to 2-series-wonder Hyperdrive – is for the United Kingdom to survive. You’d think they would’ve learned after the fall of the Soviet Union messed up so much science fiction. (At least, so we’re led to believe…)

A common sentiment people have of those who lack belief in an independent Scotland’s possibilities is that they simply don’t have the imagination: they truly cannot countenance a country that isn’t part of the UK. Well, can you blame them, when even most of our alternate history and science fiction has Scotland ensconced in a persistent United Kingdom?

Watch this clip from Outlander, in an episode coincidentally broadcast in the US  (but not, of course, the UK) in the week of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum:

Claire Fraser: What if I told you that the odds were stacked against you?
Ned Gowan: Which odds are those?
Claire: The British Army is the best in the world.
Ned: That’s a known fact, what of it?
Claire: You’re raising money for a war you cannot win.
Ned: That worries you, does it?
Claire: You’re the ones that should be worried.
Ned: You talk as if the future’s already decided. Outmanned we may be, but I would match our fighting hearts against the best army in the world.
Claire: Fighting hearts don’t stand a chance against cannons. You are going to lose.
Ned: That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it.
Claire: It’s fact, Ned. You have to believe me. History will never record the name of another Stewart king, but it will recall the names of thousands of highlanders who died needlessly for a doomed cause.
Ned: History be damned.

Here, in a story about time travel – a genre roughly 75% composed of people either trying to change, or trying to prevent changing, history – there is absolutely no challenge to the idea of history following any course other than the one Claire experienced. It is not enough to say that the Jacobites would not win: she goes further to say that they cannot win, that the cause is doomed – indeed, that “history will never record the name of another Stewart king,” pre-empting any possibility of a post-21st Century Jacobite resurgence. There is a massive difference between saying something did not happen, and that something could not happen otherwise. The very idea that the Jacobites may succeed, that the mighty British Empire might fail, in a genre which is made for “What Ifs,” is dismissed out of hand as an impossibility, a fantasy, a delusion. It’s insulting on so many levels beyond the implicit of an English person telling a Scot that they cannae dae it. (It’s even worse given that Claire is trying to change history by attempting to prevent the Jacobite Rising in the first place, but… man, don’t get me started on Outlander).

Yet we have plenty of examples here where history went down a different trouser leg of time. I’m struck by Alasdair Gray’s quotation, which he attributes to Dennis Lea: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Perhaps the honus is on our writers, artists, creators, to do exactly that – write books where Scotland is already independent; make films were Scotland is a sovereign nation; draw comics set in a Scottish Republic. The more it is imagined, the more people will believe in it: the more antidotes we have to the manufactured doom romance of the ’45 and incapability of Scotland, the more people might start to realise that there is always an alternative.

Of particular interest to me is the work of Ken MacLeod, who employs a notion not unlike it:

In my more recent works set in the near future – The Night Sessions (2008), Intrusion (2012), and Descent (2014) – the Scottish Government clearly has a great deal of autonomy, but it’s never made entirely clear whether or not it’s formally independent. Shading such an apparently fundamental issue in the depiction of a future Scotland is easier than it might seem. In everyday life, in everyday police work and (I imagine) in everyday intelligence work, the constitutional standing of the state we happen to be in is taken for granted, and can be plausibly left unspoken in a novel.

That’s a pretty nice way of doing it: after all, how many books set in Sweden or France make a point of highlighting the fact that their country happens to be independent? Ken MacLeod discusses some interesting facets of Scottish fiction, while ending on a most intriguing note:

As the referendum crept closer last year, however, the alternatives became suddenly more stark. The consequences of the referendum were so momentous, for the future not only of Scotland but of the UK, that they could quite conceivably affect the entire future history of the world. That a geopolitical tremor, at the very least, would accompany the disappearance of the United Kingdom as it had hitherto existed was well understood by world leaders, almost all of whom looked on with trepidation. To put it in science-fictional terms, two distinct timelines diverged from September 18 2014.

As the approach to the decision point became a matter of hours rather than days, I found myself gripped by Charlie’s metaphor of ‘Schroedinger’s Kingdom’. After the polls closed and before the count was complete I thought of the ballot boxes as containing two possible futures. The country existed for a few hours of that long and foggy night in an indeterminate state, like the cat in the eponymous thought experiment. A No voter myself, I woke to learn that the uncertainty and indeterminacy of the future had been raised to a new level: ‘Opened the box. The cat is alive and having kittens.’

A Scotland of quantum indeterminacy, in which all possibilities exist somewhere, is hinted at in Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia(2008). This long and moving novel of a lost but doubled life, alternate history, secret installations and secret police is only superficially science fiction. It uses the idea of parallel worlds and alternate histories as a metaphor for an abiding truth: every choice, good or bad, is a loss of an entire possible world.

Now that Scotland’s actual future has begun to be grasped as a matter of individual and collective choice, the metaphor of many worlds and multiple time-lines may yet prove more fertile, and more prevalent in literature, than that of divided minds, double lives and doppelgangers: an intriguing possibility that (as far as I’m concerned) is long overdue to be realised.

Interesting stuff, especially from one of the few Scottish science fiction writers quite open about his opposition to independence. Yet MacLeod is a writer, first and foremost, and even he conjures a “Scottish Republic” in his science fiction adventure Cosmonaut Keep. Amazing as it may be to an indy supporter like myself, it turns out even opponents of Scottish Independence have imaginations!

After 2014, I put aside my nominal vocation as a com!c art!st to support the cause of independence: to campaign for pro-independence politicians, and build support for a future referendum. Perhaps part of that campaign is in building the possibilities of an independent Scotland through art. Isn’t that the entire point of The Man in the High Castle – the power of a work of fiction to change the way people view the world, and show that history is not inevitable? Are Farenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World not in themselves examples of how society can be affected by the idea of other ways of being? Our greatest artists are already imagining Scotland anew: we should do the same.

Imagine the stories. A Scotland with its own head of state speaking to other nations’ leaders on Scots’ behalf without intermediaries or permissions from another nation’s leader; its own broadcasters, newspapers, and film industry owned and operated at home; its own top-level internet domain, area codes, calling codes; Scots representing Scots at the European Union, Council of Europe, United Nations, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, OECD, Global Environment Facility – and, if we so wish, NATO, and/or the Commonwealth of Nations; its own team coming out waving its own flag to its own anthem at the Olympics and other international sporting events; its own postage stamps and currency and passports… and best of all, for all the things above to be described with all the novelty and shock value as describing the main character’s breakfast. Just like any other country.

It’s something I’ve given a great deal of thought to. I hope other writers, artists, and creators, ones more accomplished and experienced than me, will think about it too. The more you imagine it, the closer it will come.

I’m indebted to Margaret Anderson for reminding me of this wonderful Andy Herd comic, which exemplifies what I hope to achieve in future.

Close your eyes – and try to remember
Discordant lullabies of days gone by.
Close your eyes – on the edge of forever
A chance to dream, fast asleep your nightmare ends…

*Bearsden’s Mea Allen posited an interesting twist in 1943’s Change of Heart: a then-hypothetical allied victory in the Second World War threatened by resurgent fascists years later.

10 thoughts on “The Country on the Edge of Forever

  1. Thanks Al, on a clear day with an uninterrupted view of forever, on the edge…

  2. mogabee says:

    My daughter and her generation(17) are no longer solidly British, they feel Scottish, and don’t feel any physical connection to the country to the south of them even if they have family there!
    If we stay as Scotland the “region” for too much longer it would break my heart to watch their disillusionment.

  3. Morag Kerr says:

    I remember wrting a letter to Alasdair Gray in about 1992 or 1993, urging him to write an iconic novel set in a near-future independent Scotland, for exactly this reason. I probably still have his reply somewhere. The odd thing is, it seems to be contradicted by that quote of his at the top of the article, which I see is dated a few years later than my letter to him.

    As I recall his reply, he said “Ah canna dae it,” and explained himself in terms of not being able to write propaganda to order or something like that. But it sounds as if by 1996 he had a slightly different view.

    I do think we need something to fire the imagination of those among us who have been born without it.

  4. TB says:

    Note that “Scottish” writer Ken Macleod is against Scottish independence……

  5. Patrician says:

    Hi. You are wrong about Dr Who, well the new version of it, On more than a few occasions it it either directly mentioned or inferred that Scotland is a separate country from the UK. For example, In the episode “Turn Left”, there is a conversation with Donna and her Dad about why they can’t go north, as Scotland has shut the border to refugees.

  6. […] The Country on the Edge of Forever […]

  7. […] state which governs those isles is not a United Kingdom, nor is it even Great Britain – it is England. The isles are called the English Isles: there are references to “West-England” and […]

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