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June 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Light Ages: A Novel by Ian R. MacLeod
Ace / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN0441010555 PubDate: May 2003
Review by John Berlyne
456 pages List price 23.95
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Ian R. MacLeod Interview with Iain Emsley

Though a two time winner of the World Fantasy Award (in both the Best Short Fiction and Best Novella categories) Ian R. Macleod is among that handful of established British authors that deserve far wider recognition for their writing. In spite of his prolific short story output and a fine first novel, The Great Wheel, Macleod's rise through the ranks has been slow - too slow given the sheer invention and all round quality of his work. This is about to change. The Light Ages is Macleod's "breakthrough" work - a complex and daring novel that firmly places its author on the "A" list of British genre talent.

Described by Macleod on his web site as "part science-fantasy, part alternative-history, part magical realism," The Light Ages tells of an England of an earlier time - the precise dates are never specified, at least not in calendar terms we'd recognize, but it is clear that this is post Industrial Revolution. Actually that's not quite accurate. In Macleod's Britain the Industrial Revolution did take place, but it happened very differently. Back in the 1600 Aether was discovered, a magical substance, pumped from the ground like oil. Mystical and volatile, aether is the lubricant that allows society to run. It is aether that causes the trains to run on time, that keeps buildings from falling down and that fuels the economic furnace that has put the Great in Britain. But such power comes at a price. Aether, like Uranium for want of a contemporary, real-life example, is an inherently dangerous substance and those who come into direct contact with it can suffer from the terrible side effects of trollism. Cruel society shuns such changelings.

In the Yorkshire town of Bracebridge, a place famed from it's aether production, Young Robert Barrows witnesses the truly terrible transformation of his own mother. Once a beautiful and vibrant woman working in the aether paintshops of the Toolmaker's Guild, she metamorphosises into something less than human, a monster. Unwilling to follow his father's footsteps into the Guild, Robert elects to run away to London to seek his fortune. There he becomes involved with city's political underworld, among which is a revolutionary group aiming to move society forward to a new modern age. He also becomes entangled in High Society, obsessed by Anna Winters, a beautiful young woman whom he had first met as a child back in Yorkshire along with her ghoulish guardian Mistress Summerton. As he flits between these two class strata, Robert uncovers secrets that will eventually lead him back home to Yorkshire, secrets that will be the undoing of society and will change it forever.

Two paragraphs of summary can in no way convey the rich and dark complexity of this extraordinary novel. Macleod infuses his text with a heavy industrial thud, an insistent hammering that propels the reader through the story. The Light Ages is clearly influenced by some of the greatest writers Britain has produced - genre and non-genre, living and dead. Macleod's London is the city touched upon by Charles Dickens and China Miéville - dark, brooding, dangerous, politically volatile. Indeed Robert's arrival in London is a scene straight out of Oliver Twist. More Dickens too back in Yorkshire with shadows of Great Expectations, of Robert, just like Pip, captivated by Anna (Estella) and Mistress Summerton (Miss Havisham). Bracebridge also made me think of the alternative rural and industrial Britain evoked by Keith Roberts in Pavane and also to some extent, George Orwell. In The Light Ages we recognize where we are, but we know it is fundamentally different - a concept I have never seen better encapsulated than in the opening line of1984. And the idea of the turning of the ages, of time spent on the cusp at the end of one era and the birth of another, a theme central to this novel, evokes certain works of E.M. Forster and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

Macleod is acknowledging all these influences in The Light Ages. What is also clear is that his own extraordinary vision and voice powerfully joins in this chorus of celebrating and criticising the very character of Britain. The Light Ages is a work of great subtlety, it's pacing is slow, steady and deliberately relentless and thus compulsive in the reading; the political polemic is unforgiving and deeply felt, even shocking at times; the fantasy elements are woven delicately into the fabric of the story with great artistry and the complex restructuring of society is flawless in its invention and insight.

The Light Ages is by no means a quick read - it will take you some time to wonder along its dark alleys and under its iron grey skies - but it is a hugely accomplished and literary novel and your time will be well spent indeed. It is an ingenious and undoubtedly important work, both for Macleod and the genre at large and one that should certainly have its author very much in the running for a third WFA statuette. Very highly recommended.

Ian R. Macleod Interview with Iian Emsley for SFRevu

Ian R. Macleod is better known for his short stories, some collected in Voyages In Starlight. His first novel, The Great Wheel, was published in the US. His new novel, The Light Ages, is set in an alternative Industrial Age powered by magic rather than steam.

SFRevu: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?

Ian: I didn't read much children's fiction, mainly because there wasn't the same amount of stuff about back in the sixties. I started reading adventure writers like Alastair MacLean when I was in my early teens. Then I came across John Wyndham, and saw 2001. After that, I didn't reach much else apart from SF for quite a few years.

SFRevu: What do you read these days?

Ian R. Macleod: Anything and everything. I think that to keep going as a writer, you have to keep exposing yourself to new kinds of writing.

SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

Ian: I tried, but I was never very good at it, at least until later on in my school years. I remember a story I'd written about some aliens visiting a typical English home which was set out as a museum being read out in assembly, so I suppose I must have been getting somewhere.

SFRevu: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?

Ian: I write SF, fantasy and horror because I've always enjoyed the genre(s), and because I seem to be able to do it. I do sometimes read thrillers, and whodunits, although I think the latter genre is as over–rated in common perceptions as SF is under-rated. I don't really think of historical fiction as a genre, but, if it is, I read a fair amount.

SFRevu: Who is your ideal reader?

Ian: I'm aware of a set of ghostly perceptions – that someone might be bored, or interested, at certain points. Otherwise, I try to write something which appeals to me.

SFRevu: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?

Ian: I plan more and more, although writing is always pretty hit and miss. Things you think will work don't. Ideas which seem rubbish somehow get legs. I teach creative writing, and I've found it helpful to have to stand up in front of a group of people and develop ideas pretty much out of nothing. Not that I've ever actually used them in my work, but I think I've got better as a result at looking at things and sorting them out in a more structured way rather than dissolving into disappointment and panic. I write most days, but not every day, and I space myself out and do other things and try to take breaks.

SFRevu: How did your first book sale come about?

Ian: My first book sale was a short story collection to Arkham House. The late and greatly missed Jim Turner who was then editor there came to me, and I was just pleased and flattered by his interest. My first novel sale was The Great Wheel in the States. It went the rounds via my agents, who, to their enduring credit, never gave up in the face of all the sort of "we really like this book but we don't think its for us/would be hard to market/is sideways to the genre" kind of rejections which end up being more irritating than a straight out "we don't think this is any good".

SFRevu: Of your own books, do you have a favourite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?

Ian: I don't think I've written enough books to have a favourite, other than that I always think that the one I'm working on is going to be the best. In terms of short fiction, I have particularly soft spots for my stories "Marnie", "Papa" and "The Chop Girl". Basically, in each case, it's down to a memorable main character.

SFRevu: What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?

Ian: I think that writing is supposed to be a lonely business of its very nature. The living writers that readers would think I'm closest to are probably also those that I end up thinking "well, that's all well and good, but wouldn't this work better if…" because we're setting out to achieve something similar. I do have a sort of group of personal icons, some of whom are writers, though. Nick Roeg. Keith Roberts. F Scott Fitzgerald. Robert Fripp. Edward Elgar. Thomas Hardy. D H Lawrence. Tolkien. Richard Thompson. John Updike. Steely Dan. Richard Strauss. Not that I think that they've all been brilliant all the time, but there's been something important in their work that I've carried with me. You'll have noticed that quite a few of them are conveniently dead.

SFRevu: Where is Science Fiction going, now that we live in the future? What does Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't? Do you think that they both have their own aesthetic, their own rules? How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

Ian: I really don't draw a serious distinction between fantasy and SF – or horror, for that matter. Granted, it's pretty easy to tell the difference in what I would term sub-genre in most of the work which is currently selling, but I would argue that that's because the field has become over-stratified to meet the perceived demands of the marketplace. They're all variations on the theme of the fantastic, and I think that the genre as a whole will struggle to gain and keep its readership unless the pigeon-holing is cut back. I was brought up on writers like Ellison, Delaney and Ballard, who were cutting edge by any literary standards. It was, and still should be, irrelevant, whether The Crystal World or I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream are fantasy, SF or horror.

The world in general, and the media especially, has got so good at parodying itself that it's hard for much SF of the sort which thrived in earlier decades to get a look in. Bin Laden's better than any made-up baddie. Big Brother has been usurped by Celebrity Detox. The climate's changing and we're hardly doing a thing about it. No one really understands superstrings. The American President's talking about "regime change." So it's probably time to take a broader view of the genre, as I was saying above.

As to the real future, I don't think I've ever been that interested in it. Throughout most of my life, through predictions about population explosion, nuclear war and biological or ecological catastrophe, it's always seemed pretty grim. SF, all writing, is about the present.

SFRevu: Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?

Ian: Reading, fiction especially, has certainly shaped mine.

SFRevu: What are you currently working on?

Ian: I'm just turning the corner on a book called Electricity, which is set in essentially the same world as my new novel The Light Ages, although some time hence, and with different settings and characters.

SFRevu: How do you feel about the problem of internal logic in genre writing, in regards to magic and science?

Ian: I have a problem with magical realist novels, where seemingly anything can happen and we thus cease to care about what does. I also have a problem, since the heroic fantasy market has expanded, with books containing maps of worlds which are mere variations on our own. There are always unanswered questions about why and how. My wife grew very tired of the questions I kept asking about internal logic when I was writing The Light Ages, so I know it must be important to me. It's partly because I'm a bit of a cynic by nature (for which you can probably read frustrated idealist), so I'm not very good at accepting things at face value. I've always wondered what the elves of Middle Earth got up to when they weren't singing, and if they picked their noses, and whether orcs ever suffered from piles or fell in love. I think that good writing must, in one way or another, be realistic. That's especially true if you're writing about things which are essentially fantastic.

SFRevu: What do you think of the current vogue for Industrial-type genre writing?

Ian: I think it's been there for quite some time.

SFRevu: Your characters are wonderfully believable. Were you aware of being influenced by any literature in particular?

Ian: I'm a great reader of all kinds of fiction, and, when I started writing seriously in my twenties, I already had a template in mind. The main things it included were a strong sense of place, and a strong sense of character, to balance out the elements of the fantastic I also wanted to develop. It didn't strike me then as a particularly odd aim. After all, there isn't that huge a difference between John Fowles and Keith Roberts, or the Robert Silverberg of around the time of Dying Inside and the John Updike of, say, Couples. Over the years, it's become a bit more of a crusade, but at root I guess I simply place a lot of importance on good characterisation.

SFRevu: Your characters are closely observed and really lift from the pages in a way that I have rarely seen. Do you plan your characters in detail? How much research goes into the characterization?

Ian: What happens is that I have a rough idea of a person and the things which might happen to them and the way they might react. I toy around with that. Then, when they're actually faced with something as I write the story, I think long and hard to make sure that what they do and say (and don't do) seems consistent. Essentially, it's a question of problem-solving, of shaving away the layers of things which seem wrong until you get close to something which feels right. With any luck, you're then better placed to follow the character on to the next event, and to be with them through it.

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