Scot who was ‘father’ of science fiction is honoured

Robert Duncan Milne foresaw melting ice caps.
Robert Duncan Milne foresaw melting ice caps.
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He was the Fife-born son of a Kirk minister who left Oxford University without a degree, moved to California to try to carve out careers as an inventor and then a writer.

Robert Duncan Milne, from Cupar, would go on to become a founding father of America science fiction, having more than 60 stories published in the late 19th century.

Now Dundee University has launched a bid to revive interest in “Scotland’s answer to HG Wells” – whose work appeared regularly in San Francisco literary journal The Argonaut – and how he foresaw the likes of climate change, drone warfare and satellite communication.

Later this month it will host an event celebrating a writer it says has been “largely forgotten” by the world of science fiction, despite having a prolific career in the US before dying in a car accident.

It is expected to be the precursor to a major research project into the life and work of Milne, a complete new anthology of his work and a comic book collection complete with new illustrations.

Milne will be honoured as part of a programme of events to mark the 150th anniversary of HG Wells’ birth a year after the university became the first educational institution in Scotland to offer a sci-fi degree.

The little-known life and legacy of Milne will be discussed by English lecturer and sci-fi expert Dr Keith Williams and PhD student Barry Sullivan, who has been tracing the Scot’s curious career. He has not been officially recognised since the US sci-fi historian Sam Moskowitz published the only significant collection of Milne’s work, Into the Sun & Other Stories, in 1980.

Mr Sullivan, also from Cupar, said: “What little is known of Milne’s early life suggests that he was a promising student. He attended Almondbank College, in Perth, where he won prizes for Latin verse and went on to study classics at Oxford, after which he quit Britain at some point in the 1860s. Exactly how, why and when he arrived in California has yet to be established.

“His early short stories in The Argonaut, which were effectively reminiscences of his early life in America and detail his less than glamorous past working as an itinerant shepherd, cook and labourer.

“He became the go-to guy for The Argonaut for scientific articles and had a 20-year writing history, producing more than 60 pieces of science fiction, and his work was syndicated all over the world. In the mind of Sam Moskowitz, who stumbled across Milne’s work in the early 1970s, this made him the first full-time writer of science fiction in America.”

Dr Williams said: “Milne wrote an astonishing number of sci-fi stories and created a roster of imaginary technologies, some of which were close to what was feasible at the time, but others which were way ahead and astonishingly prescient and far more accurate and extraordinary in their predictions than many of his contemporaries. He really is a lost father of American science fiction.”