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Breathmoss and other Exhalations

by Ian R MacLeod

(Golden Gryphon, $24.95, 309 pages, hardback; June 2004; ISBN 1-930846-26-6.)

Review by Kilian Melloy

Thank God for Golden Gryphon Press. Without them, where would we find top-notch collections of fantastic fiction like cover scanthe volume of Kristine Kathryn Rusch tales, Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon, or the marvelous compendia of Michael Bishop's writings Blue Kansas Sky and Brighten to Incandescence, to say nothing of the George Zebrowski potpourri Swift Thoughts and the upcoming volume of Pamela Sargent-iana, titled Thumbprints?

Usually, it would be out of place to go on at length praising a publisher when the point of a review is the author and her, or his, current work. But I've just never handled or read books so consistently beautiful to hold, and behold, and so satisfying to read. A new Golden Gryphon title is an occasion, and the latest of their books to hit the market is no less so, especially given that the author of the book in question is a Brit whose work, while not entirely unknown on these shores, is perhaps not as well known as it ought to be. Ian R. MacLeod has a previous collection of stories to his name, Voyages by Starlight, a 1996 offering from Arkham House Publishers that is both deep (top notch quality throughout) and broad (everything from straight-up sci-fi visions to acutely shiversome horror, with generous dabs of fantasay thrown in). If Voyages set the bar, the new collection, Breathmoss and Other Exhalations, has vaulted over it handily.

MacLeod might be generally categorized as a science fiction writer -- if, that is, you wanted to simplify him unduly. The truth is, though his works individually may partake in specific genre to a greater or lesser extent, the writer himself resists category. He's one of those rare specimens who is equally at ease, and equally astonishing, writing in any genre, or a mix of genres, or no genre at all. There are seven stories in Breathmoss, but they seem so much more numerous in that they take the reader to so many places, and so many varied environments: the mind is nourished; the aesthetic sense is aroused; the heart is fully engaged.

The title story, "Breathmoss," is set in a far future and on a planet where men are scarcely even extant any longer. Women run the show. What kind of culture is the result? What sorts of family structures have become the norm? What happens when a young man -- such a rarity! -- and a young woman become friends? The story unfolds with seeming leisure, but there are undercurrents at work that pull events (and the reader) into a quickening of realization.

In "Verglas," a family undertake to colonize an alien planet not by imposing their human presence, but by converting themselves into a new kind of native fauna. But there's something needed about humanity as it is, and not everyone is ready to give it up. MacLeod carefully constructs his story from half-revealed sources of anguish and hope. There are no easy answers here; only choices made always more complex by the promise and the possibilities of technology.

"The Chop Girl" steps back from outer-space adventure, forsaking the future temporarily for the past -- World War II, specifically. Told from the point of view of an unlucky young woman who the RAF pilots avoid because of the reputed fatally bad luck she brings to her young men, the story investigates the ideas of fortune and fate, showing how one man's astonishing good fortune can, in the wrong circumstances, become a nearly inescapable misery -- and how what might look like bad luck from the outside can be a blessing and a relief.

"The Noonday Pool" would be a lighthearted romp, setting, as it does, the stodgy world view of an English nobleman against the vivacious, naturalistic magical life force of a woodlands nymph (or maybe she's a sprite?), except the long and dense shadows MacLeod allows to fall into the tale -- shadows cast by primal urges for life and fulfillment. Again, the tale takes place in a time past, but the strings it plucks in the back of your mind are of the timeless, collective-unconscious sort.

Similarly, "New Light on the Drake Equation" speaks all at once to the deepest need for companionship and the most desperate, doomed hopes for understanding in a universe far too large and quiet to offer any realistic approximation of truth to our limited intellects. But that central kernel of dramatic impetus takes place against a backdrop of the most wondrously re-imagined humanity -- people with wings, people engineered to be as bright as birds or beetles -- and features a true mystery at its heart, the kind that makes redemption seem possible and even plausible.

"Isabel of the Fall" takes place in the same general universe as "Breathmoss," but is a very different sort of story: a love affair, a "Pilgrim's Progress" of a new and post-modern sort, a gorgeous celebration of transgression, excoriation, and (in the ultimate sense) enlightenment. You just don't find stories like this very often and when you do, you tend to want to hold them tenderly.

Finally, there's "The Summer Isles," an alternate history in which England, not Germany, stands responsible for some of the most tragic excesses in recent human memory. Think of it as Plato's Elysian Fields, only sad, worn, scarred, corruptible -- history itself as seen from the vantage of an old man who has lived his life as an outsider.

Much of the best in speculative fiction sees fit to ask the questions, Who are we? What are we doing here? Ian R. MacLeod makes a more personal case, and asks: What are these feelings within? Are they the pre-programmed directives of an uncaring evolutionary process -- or the spark of something more, something beyond imagining and yet wholly familiar? To open this book is to open doors into new places -- not the same old places after a bout of redecoration, mind you, but new territory on the wild side of honest to goodness literature.

***** (Five Stars, Top Rating).

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