Deep Wheel Orcadia is a magical first: a science-fiction verse-novel written in the Orkney dialect. This unique adventure in minority language poetry comes with a parallel translation into playful and vivid English, so the reader will miss no nuance of the original. The rich and varied cast weaves a compelling, lyric and effortlessly readable story around place and belonging, work and economy, generation and gender politics, love and desire – all with the lightness of touch, fluency and musicality one might expect of one the most talented poets to have emerged from Scotland in recent years. Hailing from Orkney, Harry Josephine Giles is widely known as a fine poet and spellbindingly original performer of their own work; Deep Wheel Orcadia now strikes out into audacious new space.
A symphony o yotuns, peedie suns and langships tae Mars, in Deep Wheel Orcadia Harry Josephine Giles hauds the starns in the loof o thier haun, terraformin new warlds in Scots. (A symphony of giants, miniature suns and longships to Mars, in Deep Wheel Orcadia Harry Josephine Giles holds the stars in the palm of their hand, terraforming new worlds in Scots.) - Matthew Fitt
Deep Wheel Orcadia is a mysterious and moving novel in verse about finding home in the farthest reaches. Giles lifts us to new worlds, in space and in language, we could never have imagined. A singular and numinous work. - Morgan M Page
I can't remember the last time I was this beguiled, this engrossed and this inspired by a book. It's like nothing else I've ever read. It was a joy to feel so entranced by the possibilities and complexities of each and every word. Harry Josephine Giles is a true original and a vital voice – don't miss this. - Kirsty Logan
This is a bold and experimental work. The fact about experiments is that sometimes – as with the famous Michelson-Morley experiment to prove the existence of “luminiferous aether” – they fail; but you learn something from the failure. There is much to admire in Giles’ work, and much that perhaps requires more scrutiny.
What genre is this work? The front cover says “A Novel”, the spine says it is part of Picador Poetry and the back of the book says it is a “verse novel”. This has always been an ambiguous and unclassifiable type of book. There is a difference between narrative poetry, such as Tennyson’s “Idylls Of The King” and Browning’s more elaborate “The Ring And The Book” or Arthur Clough’s “Amours de Voyage”. In recent times there has been a slight resurgence in this hybrid long form: for example, Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune, Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Vikram Seth’s ingenious novel-in-sonnets, The Golden Gate. But there is a persistent problem. Does a line exist for itself, or is it a mechanism to propel the narrative? If you want to tell a story, do you sacrifice the intricacy of the line?
Deep Wheel Orcadia does not quite square this particular circle. It is written in what the cover calls “the Orkney dialect” and the author calls “the Orkney tongue”. Each of the poems has a rendering in English beneath, and these are done with some aplomb. The idea of “translating” Scots into English, I think, begins with Robert Crawford’s joint collection with WN Herbert, Sharawaggi. It is a useful tool to clarify the distinctiveness of words. In Giles’ work, for example, the word “birl” or “birlan” is glossed as “whirlrushdancespinning”. Likewise, “unca” is put as “strangeweird” and “canny” is “skilledwisemagicalcautious”. I would think that most people with a passable grasp of Scots, in whatever form, would be able to negotiate these words swiftly. Indeed, with even more daring works, like Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – let alone Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – the reader is somehow lulled into the word-scape. There is a political point being made in that the “English” is beneath the “Orcadian”, but it is not really so significant when I think of my Greek and Latin Loeb classics – English verso, original recto.
The linguistic dexterity is entertaining enough. Hugh MacDiarmid gloried in and was reviled for his “synthetic Scots” and this applies here. Although the book contains its own justification – “sheu hears thir vooels roondan, thir consonants clippan / thir wirds switchan” – and often English intrudes when the vocabulary is simply not there – “Ma coseen is wi a college / roon Alpha Centauri, wirkan / wi archives o 21st century / intertextual narrative” – the problematic part is the difference between phonology and orthography. Why do these space-Orcadians say (or write) “arkaeolojist” and “ruinaetion” rather than “archaeologist” or “ruination”, “taks” for “takes” or “injines” for “engines”? I can understand the use of dwam, smirr, watergaw, on-ding, hae for have gie for give, but I’ve never known anyone insist on “crampit, caald offiece” rather than “cramped, cold office”. It may make the lilt of the language more apparent, but it can seem like difference for the sake of difference.
And it is a novel. I have a deep love of science fiction and know my onions in this area. It is not bad, but the tropes are all quite well-worn – there are hulking wrecks of unknown origin, the harvesting of “Light”, spectral presences, the loneliness of space, a degree of gender fluidity. None of this is new. Iain M Banks ticked all those boxes some time ago. Caulking the narrative with a sense of Orkney and technology, which is indubitably a valid concern, does not give a great degree of depth to the story. There is a game I play with my nephews: describe Han Solo. They can. Describe Qui-Gon Jinn. Blank faces. The characters in Deep Wheel Orcadia lack substance, and worse, the reader probably couldn’t give a fig about what happens to them. They are puppets for pyrotechnics, and last as long. Compared to works like The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Eschbach or Alice B Sheldon’s Ten Thousand Light Years From Home or Arkday and Boris Strugatsky’s stories, this feels intellectually and emotionally thin.
At the same time, I received two small books by the aforementioned Robert Crawford, Classical Texts and Brexit Tears, with artwork from Calum Colvin. These are brilliantly pared down works, reminiscent in some ways of Ian Hamilton Finlay. They are lapidary and sarcastic, enigmatic and intense. One would not think that one could read a single word – such as Penelope – arranged on the page in such a way that one would re-read it. Then re-re-read it.
Giles is undoubtedly a writer of talent, but this first major work lacks direction – it, like the space station, is spinning in a static place. Scotland and innovative science fiction has a long history, from Lindsay’s A Voyage To Arcturus to Morgan’s From Glasgow To Saturn. It is admirable to try to follow in their footsteps, braver to forge out on one’s own. - Stuart Kelly
“Orkney has got one of the strongest speaking populations, but one of the smallest literatures of Scotland, compared to the literature in Doric or in Shetland, which are the other very strong speaking areas, or in Glaswegian, for that matter,” begins Harry Josephine Giles on the language of Deep Wheel Orcadia, the first full-length adult fiction book in the Orkney dialect to be published in over 50 years. “What there is tends to be preoccupied with things passing, with language struggling, with culture changing, and I was kind of dissatisfied with that as a theme. Not that that work isn’t good, but I wanted to push the language somewhere where it hadn’t been before.”
And she pushes it all the way into outer space.
The Deep Wheel Orcadia is a distant space station orbiting around a gas giant, struggling for survival as the pace of change threatens to leave the community behind. “I’m not the first person to do that,” she notes. “There’s a couple of other Scots science fiction novels. Matthew Fitt’s But n Ben A-Go-Go is the most well-known.
“I’ve always read science fiction and fantasy, speculative fiction more broadly. I think a lot of my earliest loves were in that field. For me, sci-fi is a mode that you can shift into and have some fun with. I was like, ‘I want to go into space – so let’s go!’”
Though rich with themes of place and belonging, work and economy, generational and gender politics that will be familiar to anyone who knows Harry Josephine Giles’ work, at the heart of Deep Wheel Orcadia is a love story, a tender romance between Astrid, returning home from art school on Mars, and Darling, an incomer fleeing a life that never fit.
“I was getting so carried away with my ideas and my concepts and my philosophies and the fun of the setting and all that, I was like, ‘oh wait I need a story!’ I needed an emotional story that mattered.
“Having a romance allowed me to express some themes of duality, and some themes of duality in myself. I’m somebody who’s from what, in Orkney, is called an incomer family. My family is from England, but I grew up in Orkney, I moved there when I was two, that’s the language and the world I grew up in. So, I’m always somebody from Orkney and somebody not from Orkney. Having these two central characters and having them be in a relationship was a way of looking at different aspects of myself and my relationship to place, bringing them together and bringing them in conflict.”
Written in the Orkney language, the novel comes with a playful English translation. “I wanted people to work to read the Orkney. I wanted people to think about the relationship between these two languages. What I wanted to do was minoritise the English and not let the English be transparent, not let it be easy, not let it be fluid. So it’s in prose, it’s in a smaller font, and then I use these compound words, which is a technique I borrowed from the Gaelic poet Rody Gorman. They provide little stumbling blocks that are also ways of actually thinking about a word and studying a word, and they slow down the reading, they continually draw people’s attention towards the Orkney. The technique was there in order to centre the Orkney and slow down the English, and once it was there I wanted to have fun with it.”
Deep Wheel Orcadia is made possible by the writers and educators who have fostered the thriving Scots scene we see today – supported by the likes of the Scots Language Publication grants – that continue to centre the various Scots dialects in this way.
“We’re in a renaissance, it’s great!” she says. “This is one of the strongest flourishings of Scots literature since the early 20th Century. I think that’s coming partly from the very hard work of people putting Scots in the education system that’s now coming to fruition. After a couple of centuries of very firm suppression of Scots in the education system, since the early 90s there’s actually been some support for it.
“The reason I’m writing in Scots is because my teacher was Simon Hall, who was interested in Orkney language and Orkney literature, and had done specific work in that and had taught Scots in the English classroom. When I was at school, that was only just coming in. Then, when I was a teenager, I went on a creative writing course in Moniack Mhor led by Matthew Fitt, who was one of the leading proponents of Scots in education. I had these encounters through the education system and, now I’m in my 30s, this is a book that I can write.”
And Deep Wheel Orcadia suggests a lasting legacy for the language, set in the far flung future, all the way in outer space. A renaissance indeed. - Michael Lee Richardson
In his essay “About 5750 Words” Samuel Delany proposes a model of science fiction that focuses on its specifically linguistic properties, on the way words in it refer to things that “have not happened. He gives the example of Heinlein’s phrase “the door dilated,” which he takes to be the first-ever appearance of the now-widespread concept of the iris door. In this sentence, he suggests, the meaning of “door” is at once immediately apparent to the reader, and yet radically different from any meaning it had before this sentence was written. The limits of our language are the limits of our world: once a door can dilate, no door is ever quite the same again. What this suggests is that science fiction is not just a matter of writing adventure stories, but of using language itself in radically transformative ways.
If so, this sort of linguistic transformation is a resource that has recently (say for the last 150 years) been, on the whole, overlooked by those soi-disant technicians of language, poets. This was not always the case: a lot of canonical poetic works are clearly speculative in nature. Paradise Lost is so spec-fic, it even includes a worldbuilding digression on the digestive systems of angels, who apparently don’t poop, but instead excrete unneeded food as gas through their pores in a sort of gentle continuous all-body fart. Fantastical poetry, however, has been out of fashion in the poetry world approximately since Emily Brontë and Christina Rossetti. Admittedly, there has been a movement for self-consciously science fictional poetry at least since 1978, when the Science Fiction Poetry Association was founded, but mainstream poets and poetry publications have not taken it seriously. SF literary communities have been a little more hospitable (this publication, in particular, has an honorable and ongoing history of publishing SF poetry) but only, perhaps, a little.
There are reasons to hope this is changing. “Po-biz” is certainly starting to embrace some distinctly sci-fi lyric poetry by writers like Franny Choi or George Abraham. But what about the other end of the stick? Are sci-fi readers and publishers ready to pay attention to long sci-fi narratives written in verse? Recent examples, such as Oliver Langmead’s gripping Dark Star, or Alyse Knorr’s witty Copper Mother, have already suggested there are rewards for doing so. Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia represents a brilliant addition to this list.
Deep Wheel Orcadia is being released by a major publisher in the UK, Picador, under their Picador Poetry imprint, but it is being billed as a verse novel. This is appropriate: in form the book bestrides lyric poetry (it is constructed as a series of short or medium-length poems) and novel (these poems form a continuous narrative). It certainly reads as compulsively as any sci-fi novel I have read in a while: I devoured it in a day, skipping out on other responsibilities, missing my stop on the train, all the clichés. At the same time, I want to argue, what is really electrifying about it is the way it does something distinctly science-fictional, not only at the levels of worldbuilding and plot, but at the level of language.
On the level of technical and political word-building, the book is interesting, but not startlingly original. Its location—a long-isolated backwater space station, with a distinct, insular culture, losing out to the development of newer trade routes and technologies, but about to be at the centre of a revolution no-one saw coming—is not unlike settings to be found in recent books by James S. A. Corey or Suzanne Palmer. As with all settings like this, it descends, directly or indirectly, from the massively influential work CJ Cherryh did in her Merchanter/Stationer novels in the 1980s and 1990s. It is, by now, a known quantity.
On the level of plot, something more unusual is happening. In its story of humans in an apparently empty universe coming into contact with something which may or may not be alien, but is certainly unknown, it could be argued that it resembles Ann Leckie or, again, James S. A. Corey. However, those writers, for all their beautiful characterization of individual characters and relationships, focus primarily on the galactic political and military struggles those lives are swept up into. By contrast, in Deep Wheel Orcadia, although the world is being turned upside down, this upheaval is not the focus of the plot. Instead the book’s central interest is in the characters’ day-to-day lives—their halting love affairs, their difficult family ties, their local political squabbles, their academic and artistic aspirations, their dances and conversations and daydreams.
One major success of Deep Wheel Orcadia, then, is that it pulls off the difficult feat of making us care even more about whether an errant daughter, back on a visit, decides to stay, or to return to the big cities of Mars, or about whether an archaeologist will kiss a bartender, than we do about what exactly is going on with all those mysterious space hulks out near the gas giant. How does it achieve this? Well, partly by having likeable characters and well-constructed plot arcs, of course. But also, much more unusually, through poetry. - Cat Fitzpatrick Read more here
Harry Josephine Giles is an acclaimed poet and performer from Orkney, with two award nominated poetry collections to their name. Deep Wheel Orcadia (2021) is a science fiction verse novel written in the Orkney dialect. The poem is technically dazzling, showing Giles’ masterful command of both their chosen dialect and the form of poetry. But it is so much more than an impressive technical exercise. It is a tender queer romance, an exploration of gender and sexuality and how they operate within society, a compelling space opera that draws on the history of Giles’ home in the Orkney Islands. The language is rich and beautiful, rolling off the page, and Giles imbues their characters with depth and humanity. Giles’ book is remarkable, an ambitious melding of language and poetry, speculation and tradition, that creates something beautiful and altogether new.
Deep Wheel Orcadia is the first full-length work of adult fiction published in the Orkney language for over fifty years. This is a landmark in the history of a minority language in danger of disappearing. However the modern reader need not fear that this will prevent them from understanding the book. The poem is printed in Orkney dialect with the English translation alongside it – as I have quoted above. This allows Giles to make sure that all the nuances and double meanings of the Orkney words are there for the reader to see, so that the reader can enjoy the musicality of Giles’ poetry and the Orkney dialect and not miss out on any of the subtleties.
Deep Wheel Orcadia tells the story of the chance meeting and romance between two women. Astrid grew up on the space station Deep Wheel Orcadia, but left to study art on Mars. She has returned looking for inspiration. Darling is a trans woman who has escaped from the restrictive life expected of her from her rich fathers. The two of them meet on Deep Wheel Orcadia and enter into a passionate romance. All this happens against the backdrop of life on the station, which was set up to mine Light around a gas giant, but as the Light depletes and the attention of the rest of the galaxy shifts elsewhere, the way of life the inhabitants have set up for themselves and cherished over generations is under threat. Meanwhile the wreckages of vanished alien civilisations that bring teams of archaeologists to the station may not easily give up their secrets, but something strange is making itself felt across the station.
The poem is told in various different sections, changing in meter, length, tone and rhythm, as Giles adapts the mood of the poem to match the scene they are describing. Across the whole poem, they display a masterful command of language, creating moments of hallucinatory vivid imagery, intimate character interactions, and dramatic space opera sequences with equal aplomb. Giles’ skill at drawing characters and exploring the relationships between them, and their love of the Orkney dialect, means that what could become merely an impressive intellectual exercise never loses its warmth or humanity. The poem features a wide cast of compelling and believable characters, from the central protagonists Astrid and Darling, through to the station’s various inhabitants. There’s Inga and Øyvind, Astrid’s parents, a lightning ship captain and meat technician respectively, Noor the xeno-archaeologist, drawn by the alien wreckages to the station, Eynar, the landlord of a local pub who’s thinking of retiring. Giles brings to life a whole community, built on the way of life shaped by the station and tradition. Whilst Deep Wheel Orcadia operates as a metaphor for the Orkney Islands and their disappearing way of life, the story also functions as exciting space opera, and the themes of conflict between generations driven by decisions to stay and respect traditions or to forge new ways of life are universal.
At the centre of Deep Wheel Orcadia is the romance between Astrid and Darling, which is handled with a wonderful sensitivity. Astrid and Darling are two young people who have come to two very different crossroads in their own lives, who instantly fall for each other but have the same difficulties communicating that everyday people do. Will their love be able to weather the drastic changes coming to the station? Giles explores how Astrid and Darling both need very different things from each other at this stage in their lives, and the poem follows their attempts to overcome these difficulties. They are adept at capturing the heady rush of infatuation and early love, as well as the frustration of being unable to communicate with someone you care deeply about and the pain of people moving in different directions. Deep Wheel Orcadia is a thoroughly unusual prospect, but it’s a fantastic example of how poetry can enrich genre fiction, and Giles is clearly a hugely talented poet at the peak of their powers. It is a bold experiment which more than pays off. - Jonathan Thornton
‘Deep Wheel Orcadia’ is a first book written in Orkney dialect (or Orcadian) in over fifty years. However, please do not feel discouraged by this notion, as there is a translation provided. As a person living in Orkney (but not coming from Orkney), I was grateful for the translation, but as I got into the swing of reading the original, I felt I needed the translation less and less.
‘Deep Wheel Orcadia’ is a set of linked poems, which read more like a prose, each telling a story of a particular character from the book. There are many characters to get to grips with, and I found myself reverting to the list of people, or ‘The Fock’ quite often, especially at the beginning. They share in common that they all reside in Deep Wheel Orcadia – a Northern space station closest to the galactic centre, and they are all facing adversity.
The book is split into three parts, and in the first one, there is a clear portrayal of a struggling community: people working to make ends meet and food being scarce, while on the other hand, some searching for their identity and their place in the world.
The reader meets Astrid, who left Orcadia for Mars eight years previously to study Art and is now back in search for inspiration for her artwork. She meets a newcomer from Mars, Darling, who is described as ‘taall’ and ‘pael’ with ‘reid hair’ (tall and pale with red hair). Eventually the two women meet and spend the night together. In amongst all this, people begin to notice a strange apparition of an older man wearing a helmet (perhaps a soldier?) whose face is contorted in a silent shriek. What does it mean? Is the community in danger?
As I was reading the book, I noticed parallels between the Orcadia and Orkney as it is now. Giles portrays a tight knit community, where news spread quickly and where people are working in the boat and food industry. It rings true, as Orkney relies on their farming and fishing trade. Plus, we do like to ‘ken’ (know) what’s going on around us. That is what makes Orkney unique.
Furthermore, Giles writes that energy in Deep Wheel Orcadia is expensive, even though it’s produced there. I immediately thought of fuel poverty and its shocking high levels in Orkney: we produce 120% of our energy needs through renewables, and yet many have to choose between ‘eating or heating’ (source: The Orkney News). Another parallel I discovered was slow internet speed in Giles’ Orcadia – also very true for Orkney.
Another similarity is the ‘Harvest Home’ dance. In Deep Wheel Orcadia, we see the characters preparing for it, practising the steps beforehand, and there is a sense of community spirit. This was probably my favourite poem in the book, and it’s its longest, standing at 15 pages long. In the past, Harvest Home was a huge event, celebrating the end of harvest. The tradition was to have a meal first, followed by music and dancing (source: The Orkney News). It is still celebrated today, however on a smaller scale, as many events are cancelled because of low numbers of participants.
Overall, this is a beautifully written book. I loved the poetic nature of its verses. Saying that, I felt there were far too many characters to form a connection with any of them – maybe that was the purpose, but for me, when I am reading a story, I like to feel some sort of emotional inkling. Also, the book doesn’t really have a proper ending. Again, that also could have been done purposely, but I felt as if the characters were just abandoned somewhere in space, circling the orbit. - Monika Armet