From dissertation to science fiction to an entirely new concept in fiction ...a future that is also the past.
I began work on Eirelan in the early spring of 2006 after completing the draft of my doctoral dissertation in science and technology studies. I had spent the last six months researching and writing a lengthy dissertation in the history of technology, and felt like writing fiction just for fun. Throughout my fiction-writing life, beginning at age 12, this meant science fiction, and so I started evolving some ideas for an SF novel.
After a few weeks it dawned on me that, first, the story I wanted to tell did not fit in the SF genre, and second, I had in mind a character-driven story rather than one in which advanced technology plays a central role. What I truly wanted to deal with was the struggle of a people to hold onto their culture and heritage in the face of powerful threats from nature and their fellow human beings.
And so I decided to create a future world of past technology that was not a duplicate of any specific past time. Technology evolves and devolves in strange and unpredictable ways. Old technology lives alongside new in perfect harmony. Some technological knowledge is lost in time yet rarely totally lost —bits and pieces hang on through the centuries. I chose to move the story two thousand years from our time, long enough for modern technological civilization to have risen to a maximum height and then fallen, the ruins remembered but not cherished. The people of my story recall a good deal of the past, but have no wish to repeat it.
Why set the story in Ireland and other parts of the world once settled by Celtic peoples? Here the answer is somewhat straightforward: I am Irish by heritage and have always had an abiding interest in the country, its history and cultural origins. Every name in my novel is drawn from an authentic Celtic source, whether Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish or Brittanic. Every place in the novel really exists, though sometime the names have altered slightly. The culture of the Twenty Clans of Eirelan has no direct modern parallel, in Ireland or anywhere else, yet it incorporates many values traditionally associated with a Celtic heritage. Some of the songs appearing in the novel (“The Meeting of the Waters” and “The Fanaid Grove”) I have sung often in recital and have recorded. They are very much a part of who I am.
I love the sea and sailing, so about one-third of the book takes place at sea. I have devoted many years of study to ancient and medieval warfare; the scenes of battle in the book blend some aspects of Roman and some aspects of medieval warfare, weapons, and armor. I own and practice with a longbow, hence one fighting arm of the Province is based on the longbow. I am a poet so some of my characters are poets and others read poetry for pleasure. I love books and own far too many: one of my characters lives in a flat stuffed with books. At least some elements of the philosophy of the Twenty Clans are drawn from my own beliefs which largely derive from classical sources.
More than anything else, though, the novel is about a people fighting to hang onto literature and music and art and civilization because that is what they value most. They are willing to lay down their lives to preserve what has come down to them. What they fight for is what I value most in the world.
The book was written by the characters, not by me. I did not know as the book opened what would happen. Plot ideas that I started with quickly evaporated and as the characters and the setting took over, events moved along in surprising ways. Each chapter revealed to me more about these fascinating people, their strengths and weaknesses, their deepest desires and frustrations, their ambitions and disappointments. Eirelan became their story, told by them to me and then written down. In the end I found their world one I would like to live in, despite its terrible dangers. I hope my readers will feel likewise.