Alasdair Gray’s novella A History Maker (1994) is set in a Scotland of the future which understands human history, past and future, in terms of the domestic household. The global economy has been transformed by the invention of a universally available green energy source, the powerplant stalk: a column of light that extends from the ground to the clouds, requiring no input or maintenance except what is provided by the local ecosphere, and capable of converting all available material into whatever a household needs, from books and minerals to china dolls. As a result, societies have rearranged themselves into small domestic units organised around individual powerplant stalks, each unit directed by a group of matriarchal ‘aunts’ whose ‘gossip’ helps them resolve every crisis faced by their community.
The men of the future amuse themselves by staging wargames between local communities, fought with real weapons and involving a sometimes spectacular body count. The book’s protagonist, Wat Dryhope, acquires cult status among the spectators of these wargames thanks to his part in winning a victory for his clan against all odds. As a result, he finds himself drawn into a worldwide plot to overthrow the matriarchy by destroying the powerplants that supply its households. Wat represents, in fact, the intrusion of history into a world that sees itself as having left history behind; history, here, being largely the product of dissatisfied men seeking to gain power by violence over as many households as they can, often because of some personal resentment caused by their upbringing. Only the matriarchs and their gossip can prevent this utopia of the future from lapsing back into its historical state of continuous warfare.
The intrusion of history into a settled world is also, for Gray, the realisation of story. Hailed as a hero, Wat stands in danger of coming to embody the desire of certain men and women to transfer their fantasies wholesale from the space of storytelling into the public and private spheres, with consequences as disastrous as you might expect if you like to read action adventures or indulge in extravagant fantasies. Mark Twain, among others, shared this awareness of the disastrous effects of confusing the real and the fantastic, ascribing the American Civil War to the passion of Southern Gentlemen for reading the romances of Sir Walter Scott, and for imposing the terms of those romances unchanged on their unfortunate nation. Gray’s world of the future, set in the Scottish landscape quite close to Scott’s home in Abbotsford, involves instead a constant interplay between fantasy and reality, and so invites us to consider how best to achieve a healthy relationship between the two. Gray politicizes fantasy, in other words, and encourages his thinking readers to do the same.
Wat Dryhope is not simply an embodiment of toxic masculinity or imperialist self-delusion. He also represents a resistance to complacency: dreams and fantasies as stimulants to reflection, invention, needful transformation. His disruption of the matriarchy leads it to needful self-reformation, giving new creative functions to the men who had formerly been wasting their lives in pointless combat. And he ends his life as a wandering Gangrel: one of those travellers whose philosophy of constant movement and debate challenges the self-satisfaction of the settlements they refuse to settle in. His first name recalls both ‘Walter’, invoking the internationally acclaimed and notoriously conservative writer of romances, and Wat Tyler, the leader of the fourteenth-century peasant’s revolt whose life was an inspiration to the socialist writer-artist William Morris. His second name summons up both the old word wanhope – despair, depression, despondency – and the conviction that the green shoots of hope can spring from the driest of grounds (‘For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease’; ‘Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live’). Like most of us, and like the fantasy genre, he is a thing of contrasts.
The Wat Dryhope Award is intended to reward thought on fantasy. To this end it is presented annually to the best-performing student in the MLitt English Literature: Fantasy at the University of Glasgow. The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic thanks the Estate of Alasdair Gray for giving us permission to name the award after one of his quirkiest and most unsettling protagonists.