Monday, August 6, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Ian R. MacLeod

Short Fiction of Ian R. MacLeod

Ian R. MacLeod was born August 6, 1956. In honor of his birthday, I'm reposting a few of the reviews I've done of his stories over the year, including a somewhat longer piece I did on "New Light on the Drake Equation", which I still rank as the best novella of the new millennium.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the files for some of my more recent reviews, such as what I wrote about his wonderful 2016 novelette "A Visitor from Taured".

Tangent Online SF By Starlight Feature, June 2001

"New Light on the Drake Equation", by Ian R. MacLeod (SCI FICTION, May 2001)

One of the usually fatal story gimmicks in SF is to make the story be about SF itself. There is little more annoying than an SF story whose point is that SF is good to read. And even when the theme of the story is something more substantive, references to other SF often seem twee or in-groupish. But Ian R. MacLeod, in "New Light on the Drake Equation", his lovely new novella posted at SCI FICTION, manages to make his story be, in part, about SF, and to make that work. It works partly because that is only a small part of what the story is about -- partly because the way it is about "SF" is reflective of the other themes of the story -- and mostly because the central concern of the story, the Drake Equation, is so central to the yearnings of 20th Century science fiction.

The Drake Equation is described here: . Briefly, it attempts to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy that we might communicate with, or at least detect. It combines terms representing the rate of formation of suitable stars, the proportion of such stars with planets, the proportion of such planets that will be habitable, the proportion of habitable planets on which life will actually develop, the proportion of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life evolves, and the period of time for which intelligent life might emit detectable signals. Not surprisingly, the values of most of these terms are not known, and indeed are rather controversial. It is one of the central dreams of SF that enough of those terms are of high enough value that there might be thousands, or thousand of thousands of species in our galaxy with whom we might communicate.

Many evaluations of the Drake Equation have been pretty optimistic. It really does seem plausible that there ought to be other intelligent life in the galaxy -- if nothing else, the Principle of Mediocrity suggests that we ought not to be all that special. But set against the Drake Equation is the Fermi Paradox: if all that life is out there: then where are they? Why haven't we heard from them?

The protagonist of MacLeod's story is Tom Kelly, a scientist who, by 2058, is pretty much the only scientist remaining who has any interest in communicating with aliens, or at any rate in searching for signs of alien radio signals. He lives a lonely, squalid life in a remote area of France. His life's work is trying to communicate with aliens, but he hardly communicates at all with other people -- this is nicely portrayed right at the opening as he struggles to get his mail from the elderly Frenchwoman who runs the post office, and it’s further emphasized, in a different way, by his impatience with the odd electronic postcards that are his actual mail. The squalor of his personal life is accentuated by his drunkenness. And to make things worse, medical science has adapted to the point that these conditions can easily be alleviated by what appears to be nanotech -- you can learn a foreign language by drinking a vial of the right stuff, and you can cure alcoholism. But Kelly, living in what appears to be a near utopian future, himself once an SF fan, presumably one who read about just such miracles, refuses such measures for himself.

The heart of the story occurs when Kelly returns from the post office to his mountainside home. In the village he thought he might have seen his former lover, Terr (short for "Terrestrial"?). Later in the night she comes walking up the mountain. Their long conversation is interspersed with flashbacks of their relationship. Terr and Tom were both students at the University of Aston in Birmingham, England. Terr never settled on a consistent field of study, while Tom became involved at this early time in his life work. So in many ways they weren’t compatible, yet the relationship is presented as fairly idyllic, but as inevitably ending. In the background we see hints of the developing future -- little things like hydrogen-powered cars, bigger things like a manned landing on Mars (no life!), and most importantly, the biological advances that lead to medical improvements like cures for alcoholism, and personal improvements like language learning, radical cosmetic alterations, and even, eventually, functional wings.

In a way, humans are becoming aliens themselves. And Tom Kelly drifts away from all that. Terr becomes a dedicated flyer, which seems to precipitate their breakup. Tom becomes more and more of a hermit, going from academic job to academic job, cadging what little grant money he can, eventually becoming regarded as a crank for still believing that there might be aliens out there -- indeed, for still even caring that there might be aliens out there.

The mood of the story becomes positively elegiac. Humanity, it seems, is doomed to loneliness. We are as alone as Tom Kelly, perhaps living in as squalid a place. I was reminded of two other significant stories on the same theme, "One" by George Alec Effinger, and David Brin’s Hugo-winner "The Crystal Spheres". And MacLeod ups the ante for SF readers by paralleling this idea of the death of hope for meeting aliens with the death of science fiction itself. SF, which Tom Kelly so loved when a child, is apparently no longer written. Its themes are 20th Century themes -- there is no place for it in the future. For me, at least, this resonated powerfully.

But MacLeod doesn’t leave us there. In part we are shown the contrast of Terr’s peripatetic life -- always looking for more and better flying. It’s not clear whether her life, her two failed (but not unhappy) marriages, her career in public relations, are to be seen as in any way better than Tom’s lonely obsessiveness. But they do represent a different way to live -- as do the happy, colorful young people all around Tom -- as do the flyers, physically different, almost aliens themselves. Is humankind itself enough? Do we really need to meet the aliens? The story ends calmly, with Terr’s visit to Tom rendered ambiguous (was it all a dream), but with Tom apparently changing his ways. But still listening.

This is a lovely story -- quiet and beautiful, thoughtful, elegiac and hopeful.

From Locus, May 2002:

Ian R. MacLeod is probably my current favorite writer of short SF, and it is a treat to see his huge novella in the May Asimov's, "Breathmoss". This is in the same milieu as his fine novelette, "Isabel of the Fall", the Ten Thousand and One Worlds, a future dominated by a much altered Islam, and in which there are very few men.

"Breathmoss" is a coming of age story about Jalila, a young woman on a planet with a rather long year. We meet her in spring as she moves with her three mothers from the mountains, where the air is so thin that breathing is assisted by "breathmoss" growing in the lungs, to a small seaside town. Her growing up takes us to winter. Jalila makes three significant friends. One, inevitably, is Kalal, the only boy in the town, perhaps on the whole planet. Another is a beautiful girl named Nayra with whom she falls in love. The third is an ancient "tariqua", a starship pilot, who lives alone near the town. As she comes to adulthood, she is forced almost willy-nilly to choose between conventional life with Nayra, an unconventional relationship with Kalal, and a completely different life as a tariqua -- but her choice seems inevitable, and precipitates a violent act, which leads Jalila towards even more self-discovery.

This story is lovely and fascinating, not least for such offhand details as the curious semi-mechanical hayawans. The thematic heart of the story, issues of identity, and time, and the "Pain of Distance" experienced by people who leave home for a nomadic life, is compelling. Still, I was a bit less satisfied than I might have been. The climactic violence seemed forced and almost a cliché. And the final revelation, if philosophically interesting, also seemed a bit old hat. Nonetheless, this is a fine novella.

From Locus, May 2007

The May F&SF features intriguing stuff throughout. The cover story is "The Master Miller’s Tale", by Ian R. MacLeod, set in the alternate fantastical history of his novels The Light Ages and House of Storms. Nathan Westover, we are told from the start, will be the last of the master millers on Burlish Hill. The story is then a recapitulation of the Industrial Revolution, though this time the new "industry" is magic -- using "aether", as we have seen in the novels. To be sure, the millers use magic as well, in particular to control the unpredictable winds. Nathan’s story is of an abortive fascination with an aristocratic girl, and then rivalry with her as she leads the movement to bring in aether-controlled factories, then involvement with the Luddite-analogues of this alternate world, then a very moving closure, in which both central figures figure sadly. In a way this story is too programmatic -- the Industrial Revolution parallels too crude -- but all is redeemed by the way the personal stories of the main characters work out.

From Locus, May 2008:

The June Asimov’s features another powerful novella from Ian R. MacLeod. "The Hob Carpet" is set in an alternate world in which humans share Earth with close relatives they call hobs, who lack the power of speech and who are enslaved. The religion of this culture is built on extravagant cruelty towards the hobs -- sacrifice, and sacrifice accompanied by horrendous torture, is central. But the narrator is no believer in the gods, and moreover he comes to believe that the hobs do much better work if treated well. But he is not quite a hero: he is curious and cold (both words having double meanings). His love life is quite stunted, and his beautiful wife leaves him. His treatment of the hobs runs him afoul of the authorities, especially amidst drastic climate change, blamed naturally on his apostasy. The resolution is familiar to SF readers: the world turned upside down, martyrdom, scientific heroism (including, in a bit of a misstep, MacLeod’s second recent use of an "alternate Darwin"), cool secrets revealed: but for all its familiarity it is moving and it works.

From Locus, June 2010:

All F&SF’s issues these days are "big double issues". For July-August I thought the best story was from Ian R. MacLeod. "Recrossing the Styx" is set on a grand cruise ship, that caters to the very rich, and particularly to one subset of the very rich: the dead. That is, the dead but revived -- zombies, in a science-fictional sense. The narrator is a crew member, who falls for the wife of one of those revived rich -- a beautiful young woman who has, it seems, traded her youth for wealth -- with a nasty twist revealed when any attempt at intimacy is made. But perhaps there is a way out for her? With the narrator’s help, of course. MacLeod, of course, has more surprises for us -- and it’s nice stuff, if not by any means MacLeod at his best. Speaking of zombies, there is another zombie story in this issue, and it’s pretty entertaining too: Albert E. Cowdrey’s "Mr. Sweetpants and the Living Dead", in which a successful writer hires a security firm to protect him after his latest lover comes after him for revenge -- after the breakup and also after the lover seemed to have quite conclusively died. Funny and in a number of ways oddly sweet.

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