‘Near the Driver’ by Alasdair Gray

It is possible that ‘Near the Driver’ is my favourite Alasdair Gray story simply because I heard him read it before it was published; it is therefore a story I hear in his voice. The central character is a “kind, intelligent old lady” not much used to modern trains who feels safer when she sits near the driver. Though the logic of this is soon disputed by a child in the same compartment, the feeling remains. As the passengers reminisce about the days of steam and argue about politics, the same child discovers that no-one is driving the train – it is being controlled by computer (a much less fanciful notion now, as are the pocket televisions mentioned in its 1999 setting). In many ways it is a typical science fiction warning, but one delivered with Gray’s typical erudition and humour, and always with an eye on the effects of ‘modernisation’ on ordinary people.

First published in Ten Tales Tall and True, Bloomsbury, 1993, and collected in Every Short Story, Canongate, 2012