by Ian R. MacLeod
Cover Artist: Edward Miller
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596062979
Date: 31 August 2010 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Ian R. Macleod's new collection of short fiction, Journeys, demonstrates Macleod's skill as a world builder, and his even more impressive skill of having his fantastical world's mirror and cast light on our own. Each fantasy world he creates feels as rich and multi-dimensional as our own, while at the same time foregrounding elements of our everyday experience that we otherwise fail to see, and sometimes that we might prefer to sweep under the rug.
Macleod is at his best at the longer end of the short story spectrum. For me, Journeys is anchored and defined by the three long pieces it contains; “The Master Miller's tale", “Elementals", and “The Hob Carpet". These longer pieces allow Macleod's world building to flourish, and also give him room for some deft character building. In "The Master Miller's tale", Macleod explores a version of pre-industrial England in which various guilds, among them the guild of millers, have developed closely guarded books of spells to aid in their craft. The main character grows up working in the family mill, and eventually takes over running the mill as his ancestors have for generations. However, as time goes on the guilds’ are being replaced by new techniques and technologies, as magical power is excavated from the earth and used to fuel trains and steam engines. The story is a beautiful, and sad, portrayal of what happens when a way of life that has endured for centuries is swept away in a matter of years. It also emphasizes the downsides of the industrial revolution, and what it has cost us.
Both "Elementals" and "The Hob Carpet" deal with issues of class and oppression. "Elementals" explores the way that wealth and class, features of the world that can be barriers as firm as any fence or wall, are constructed out of thin air by belief and attitude. It is also a magnificent piece of steampunk writing, capturing the tone of its Victorian setting at the same time as it satirizes them, and us, for hypocrisy. "The Hob Carpet" is a multilayered exploration of slavery and oppression. The Hobs of the title are a race of servants for mankind in the fantasy setting Macleod constructs. While clearly intelligent, able to perform all the menial tasks of the entire human race and understand and obey sign language, the Hobs are treated as beasts. They are castrated and rendered mute by amputating the tongue, and are sacrificed in bloody rituals to the Gods. What makes this story particularly interesting is the way it explores the cost of this oppression to the oppressors. Technology has stagnated, since there is no demand for labor saving devices. Even human contact is stunted since Hobs are available to do all the work of raising children, and even providing sexual satisfaction. The one unsatisfying element of the story is the lack of explanation for the passivity and obedience of the Hobs. Why do they never rise up against the humans, given how abused they are, and that they outnumber the humans dozens or hundreds to one? Still, this is a fascinating and powerful tale.
The shorter stories are also very enjoyable, although not quite as powerful as the longer works. "The English Mutiny" is a thought provoking alternate history in which Britain is enslaved by India, rather than the reverse, and raises questions about the morality of war as a means of resisting oppression. "Second Journey of the Magus" is an alternate history of sorts as well, in which the major difference is that Jesus succumbs to the temptation to become lord of the earth rather than go meekly to the cross. Macleods highly non-standard theological musings cast the familiar Christian story in a fascinating new light.
The collection as a whole has an elegiac quality. Many are stories of decline, and most leave the protagonist diminished and nostalgic. This provides a certain theme and unity to the collection, and Macleod's innovation and indisputable talent prevent it from becoming repetitive. This is an important and fascinating collection from a highly skilled author. Macleod's brand of fantasy manages to balance the need to create a world that feels real and substantial with the demand to say something meaningful about our modern situation.