Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Searching for Birmingham's science-fiction soul rebels

How can Birmingham - a city so pathologically futurological that its motto is Forwards - feature so little in science-fiction?

I expect London to dominate literary geography - much like other genres - but other towns in this divided kingdom have had their SF-nal stories told. Charles Stross and Ken MacLeod have both set near-future novels in and around Edinburgh, Jeff Noon has given us a post-Singularity pyschedelic Manchester. Heck, Cardiff has Torchwood.

But if anyone's claimed Birmingham for speculative fiction at all it's been Tolkien, reflecting on his early years from the safety of his Oxfordian refuge. And his view of the city is decidely anti-futuristic.

Yet Birmingham - created practically ex nihilo for the industrial revolution - has been chasing the future since its inception. Look around you and see futures past - the Rotunda, the ziggurat of the old Central Library - alongside attempts to grasp the coming moment like the new Bullring and the Spirograph. Feverish attempts at civic rebranding - Eastside, Southside, this quarter, that quarter - are not signs of a city that is content to live in the moment.

However neurotic its official culture might be, Birmingham really is a crucible of change. One of our most diverse cities, still divesting itself of traditional industries, shaking off the old certainties of modernity and asking big questions. And it's dramatic. Whole areas of the city like Digbeth in simultaneous decay and rebirth. A cosy catastrophe and an ideas factory side by side. 

So, again: why has no-one written about this from an SF perspective? To paraphrase one of the city's more famous musical sons, I'm searching for Birmingham's science-fiction soul, and I can't find it anywhere. Where have you hidden it?

Update 9 February

Since writing this post, I've been directed to two spec-fic novels which do feature Birmingham substantially. Thanks to James Brogden and Stephen Theaker who both got in touch to suggest:

I'll look to see if I can lay my hands on these forthwith. I was hoping to be proven at least a little bit wrong and it'll be good to see the city as represented in these stories.


  1. Some parts of Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod were set in Handsworth. (I reviewed it a few years ago, here - I liked it a lot.)

  2. Thanks Stephen - the book looks intriguing and I shall check it out. I was hoping my l'il polemic wasn't entirely accurate. :-)

    I've also been pointed towards James Brogdan's Tourmaline, by the author himself, which is mostly Birmingham-set too