Author: Iwan Rhys Morus
I’ve just finished re-reading a book I first (and last) read when I was twelve or thirteen. Welsh SF was a rare commodity in the 1970s. The classic Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd (A Week in Future Wales) by Islwyn Ffowc Elis had been published in 1957. It was an utopian, time-travelling vision of a future independence married to a warning of what might go wrong. I can vaguely remember something about travelling to Venus as another example, and the Welsh children’s magazine Cymru’r Plant serialized a space travelling adventure story sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. Owain Owain’s Y Dydd Olaf (The Last Day), published (and read by me) in 1976, was certainly not a space opera adventure, or a piece of Plaid Cymru propaganda. It was weird and uncomfortable, which is probably why I didn’t read it again.
Y Dydd Olaf was a record of humanity’s last days, captured in diary entries by the seventy-year old man, Marc (a pun, I assume) before he was taken away to be harvested by the Them for the resources they needed to take humanity to the next stage. The debt to Huxley’s Brave New World was clear even to a twelve year old, and in any case Owain made that novel, along with 1984, into key actors in his own plot. Marc’s comrades in the Brotherhood Council, the ones who recreated themselves as the Them, treated Huxley’s book as their bible. Huxley’s dystopia was their utopia. They had turned themselves into machines and humanity into their fuel, just like the Matrix. Except of course that the book is full of elisions that confuse the boundary. That’s what makes it interesting.
The historian in me is fascinated by the periodicity, particularly since one of our key concerns in the Unsettling Scientific Stories project is to link past futures to their histories. Owain Owain’s controlling machine mind has the architecture of a 1970s computer programme. It could have been written in FORTRAN. We’re led to infer that it was the deficiencies built into this architecture that would eventually lead to the regime’s downfall – it would die of information overload. Owain called it the Uchel Gyfrifydd, and by a nice bit of linguistic ambiguity that translates as either High Computer or High Accountant. I like to think that the ambiguity’s deliberate, both because it suits computing’s historical origins and because it highlights the uncertainty as to just what kind of entity the Uchel Gyfrifydd is. He’s the new trinity, Marc says: man, machine and spirit of brotherhood.
Marc’s relationships run through his diary – and all of them complicit in the new world order that emerged when the Brotherhood Council took over in 1984. Marc himself starts out studying electrical engineering (of course) in 1948. One of his fellow students will be one of the Uchel Gyfrifydd’s chief architects – may have turned himself into the machine itself. As fellow-travellers they’re all faced with the choice of becoming part of the new hive mind. Marc refuses, the woman he’s loved all his life, Anna, agrees. She’s the Mary Sperling to his Lazarus Long. It’s all about agency, complicity and the ambiguity of that border between bodies and machines. Even the refuseniks like Marc who escape reprogramming avoid detection because they have had a platinum chip implanted in their brains. They’re cyborgs too. Of course it’s difficult to read this now without thinking about Donna Haraway, or about Star Trek’s Borg.
The diaries exist because Marc knew the Uchel Gyfrifydd’s architecture well enough to know how to hide it from the Them – and because he wrote in Welsh, knowing that the sub-programmes to translate minority languages had been deleted to give the Uchel Gyfrifydd more resources to deal with mysterious communications emanating from Omega-delta (aliens? another group of subversives? a rival human/machine hybrid?) So just as the information age was about to go exponential Owain was writing about information’s ambiguities (there’s a lot of miscommunication), information loss and information overload. He’s constructing a future history from a 1970s computer science textbook, as it were, And that’s just the sort of thing that Unsettling Scientific Stories wants to investigate.
So fratolish hiang perpetshki to you all.
Owain Owain’s book was a major influenced for electro-pop artist GWENNO, whose first album was called Y Dydd Olaf (Peski Records, 2014/Heavenly Records, 2015). Here’s an interview with the Cornish and Welsh-language singer about the album and her SF influences.