A History Maker

Alasdair Gray’s 1994 novel (sometimes referred to as a novella, but this is to ignore the extensive notes and postscript which, in any Gray work, are a part rather than an addition) A History Maker is an unlikely combination of science fiction and border ballad. The novel is set in the far future – it’s prologue is dated 2234 – in a matriarchal utopia where men continue to amuse themselves with war in a regulated fashion for the entertainment of the masses, filmed and commented on by hovering ‘public eyes’  Its central character, Wat Dryhope (his first name presumably originating from Wat Tyler as the novel will soon become concerned with revolution) is the son of General Craig Douglas (children take their mother’s name), leader of the Ettrick regiment, now reduced to a few men and surrounded by Northumbrians. They will be defeated if the opposition take their pole and banner, and defeat seems inevitable. Wat advises his father:

“Give him the pole. Let’s go home for a wash and a breakfast… We can order another pole. Our aunts will weave us another banner.”

Though Douglas describes Wat as ‘the voice of reason’ he has another plan which involves letting the Northumbrians think they have captured the banner but not surrendering, and then killing those soldiers who have the banner so that it fails into the sea thus rendering the battle a draw. Wat follows these orders but is so disgusted at having to kill an opponent in cold blood he decides to follow the banner over the edge of the cliff. Saved by a whin bush, he is the only uninjured Ettrick soldier left, and regarded as a hero.

Away from the battlefield, life is peaceful as a result of ‘powerplants’ which are able to grow resources in response to music. This is typical of Gray’s approach to science fiction – it’s not the scientific possibility which interests him, but what it tells us about society. In the notes we are given a history of the powerplants, which were initially horded by the wealthy, but, as word got out:

“Millionaires faced the fact that their private havens would only be perfectly safe in a world where most people were safe.”

The powerplants represent a world without want, where people live communally, and children are looked after by all. Wat is disgusted by his father’s sacrifice of the Ettrick soldiers (“Our bairns were slaughtered because our Dad feared age and loneliness”) but this does not mean he is happy with the utopian world which has ended history. When his brother, Joe, reminds him of “the dark ages when men fought wars without rules,” he replies:

“I’m reading about folk who struggled to stop all that… They were the greatest heroes.”

Later he will say:

“I want the bad old days when war had no rules and bombs fell on houses and men and women died together like REAL equals!”

Though this is said in anger, Gray is reminding us of the attraction of violence and destruction. It is relevant that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was published two years before; Gray’s novel presents a counter-argument. Wat is open to corruption and that corruption comes in the form of a woman (frequently a weakness of Gray’s male characters). The seduction is not only sexual but intellectual – the woman (known initially as ‘Delilah Puddock’) is open in wishing to use Wat to change the world – to make him a ’history maker’ and return o our present-day times of “the competitive exploitation of human resources.”

The novel is a warning which, from the perspective of a further thirty years, it seems we have not heeded, as outlined by Wat’s mother, Kate, in her prologue:

“A History Maker shows that good states change as inevitably as bad ones, and should be carefully watched.”

Using a futuristic premise imbued with a lively Scots vocabulary, Gray demonstrates how this might happen, suggesting in particular that, for some, freedom from want is not just undesirable but something they will work actively against. Though A History Maker is not one of Gray’s major novels, it is one of his most prescient.


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2 Responses to “A History Maker”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’d not heard of this one of Gray’s books, Grant, but I like the sound of it – as you say, seems most prescient!

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