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The Light Ages

by Ian R MacLeod

(UK editions: Earthlight, £17.99, 456 pages, hardback, published 2 June 2003; Pocket Books, £6.99, 456 pages, paperback, April 2004. Pocket Books, £6.99, 456 pages, mass market paperback, 5 April 2004.
US edition: Ace Books, published 1 May 2003.)

The backdrop for Ian R MacLeod's rather good cover scannew novel (his first UK-published novel, his previous novel inexplicably only ever appearing in the US) is immediately familiar, immediately establishes a rough date, and yet also immediately other. The street-names are familiar, or subtly altered, and "...the Thames spreads her fingers through tidal mud"; the new iron bridges, the smog and the Dickensian poverty imply something late-Victorian, or possibly a bit later; but then, apparent anachronisms (or they would be if this were our own timeline) intrude, along with vivid assertions of the fantastic, as elegant grandmistresses walk their feathered, crested, winged-but-flightless pet dogs on the city streets.

Where this world differs from our own is the discovery of aether some 300 years previously, a mystical fifth element that bleeds light where it is dark and dark where it is light, and which is tamed and exploited by the spells of specialists in the various guilds of this rigidly stratified society. The protagonist, Robert Burrows, is raised in the northern town of Bracebridge, a town that has grown up and prospered, after a fashion, around the vast subterranean engines which mine and confine the aether. But aether has a darker side: too much contact with it can turn people into trolls or changelings, their visible external changes indicating the more-feared inner changes. And what of the neighbouring town, ruined by aether and now largely abandoned? Yes, every advance has its darker side, but this is no crude Luddite parable about the evils of technology and big industry, but more a realistic view of the gains and losses that go hand in hand with progress.

Aether, it appears, is not a perfect technology by any means. MacLeod's characters realise that it has actually stalled the development of better technologies, such as electricity, as the large vested interests stifle any alternative in favour of the established technology which sort-of works -- "lazy engineering", as it is described here. It's an interesting proposition, but our own experience of innovation nearly always finding a way out into the open, tends to throw into doubt the credibility of this scenario, where a society that is chronologically near-contemporary with us has standards of living that are barely Victorian. Could vested interests really delay things to that extent? Then again, think of computer technology, where lazy engineering (and skilful control of the market) means that a huge proportion of computers run bloated, bug-ridden operating systems rather than more reliable, streamlined alternatives; or the energy industry, where huge vested interests nearly convinced us that nuclear power would be too cheap to meter... Maybe MacLeod has something after all.

The tremendous power of MacLeod's allegory, though, lies in that moment of understanding when the reader makes the intuitive leap: if this fictional society is stuck at this level, what does that mean for us? What wonders are we missing as we struggle, blinkered, up our own industrial blind alleys?

Robert Burrows moves from his northern childhood to London, discovering that the streets are not paved with gold, Frenchmen do not, in reality, have tails, and so on. His gut recognition that the greatest horrors are those we inflict on each other in the name of civilisation grows into a political awareness and activism. He doesn't accept for a moment his mother's plea -- that of the resigned-to-it-all working classes: "Things can't be changed ... Everything is as it is ... We all wish it was otherwise." MacLeod does a good job with the Dickensian layering of society, although perhaps he does not take it far enough. When Burrows is struggling at the poorer end of the spectrum, thieving and scheming in the lowly Easterlies of London, things come just a bit too easy for him and life is never as harsh as it appears to be for others. Indeed, wherever he goes, things tend to fall into place for Burrows. If MacLeod's intention was to show his protagonist's journey through the extremes (he also spends time mixing with the upper ends of the social scale), then Burrows never sinks quite low enough for this to really work.

There's a sense in MacLeod's writing of the everyday, his deft descriptions of, for example, a country fun fair come to visit, have the realism of autobiography: one might easily imagine that the author has witnessed just such a fair (along with its pathetically modified dragon) and is merely re-using the experience in his fiction. This isn't sf with the shock of the other striking you from every page, it's intimate and humane sf that convinces from the outset and carries you along, so that you take for granted the other that is, indeed, threaded throughout.

A strikingly different novel, and one that should be on the awards shortlists come next spring.

Notes: Do try to ignore the many typographical errors missed by the proofreaders (if there were any), such as: "You were just talking about you." (p 244)

And don't read the too-revealing cover blurb, whose writer seems to think readers are so stupid they have to be spoon-fed the first few plot developments in advance. Honestly, why does a fine author like MacLeod spend a hundred pages creating a careful portrait of his alternative world and skilfully building the storyline when some smart-arse in marketing can tell us all we need to know in a hundred words?


Review by Keith Brooke.

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