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Voyages by Starlight
Ian R MacLeod
(Arkham House, $21.95, 269 pages, hardcover; published 1996.)

Before he established Golden Gryphon Press, the late James Turner edited a superb line of SF collections for the long-established Arkham House; Voyages by Starlight was one of the last of these to appear, not long before Cthulhu came stomping up from the foundations and switched the lights off again (that is, not long before the Lovecraft-besotted owners of Arkham House decided SF no longer belonged in their mouldering mansion.) But however the politics of publishing beset Turner, his taste and editorial skill suffered no lapses: Voyages by Starlight assembles many of the best stories by one of Britain's best SF and Fantasy writers. Individually, these pieces are impressive enough; but read cumulatively, as Turner's good work has made possible, they constitute a cogent tapestry of meaning, quietly written, psychologically acute, and as atmospheric as SF has ever been.

MacLeod is (perhaps) a British Ray Bradbury. He resembles Bradbury in his consistent preference for the short form, in his poeticism, in his achievement of graceful hybrids of genre, in his profound understanding of the awkward transitions of childhood and the frustrations of bourgeois adulthood; but he is simultaneously sharper than Bradbury, capable of more sustained literary meditation, less sentimental, a good deal more subtle. In MacLeod's hands, the lyrical intimacy of domestic Horror familiar from Bradbury, while deployed with a certain humane obliqueness, is devastating in unusual measure. Midcentury families encouraged their sons to build model warplanes; in "1/72nd Scale" this encouragement is dramatised as a terrible pressure, and the model of a bomber, constructed in desperation and futility, delivers an unthinkable load. More emphatically still, "Grownups" tells of a world very like our own, but with a sinister elaboration superadded to the reproductive routines of the human species: as children mature into adulthood, they face painful metamorphosis, a symbolically very penetrating intensification of the common experience of adolescence. Drawing upon MacLeod's particular command of the ambience of the Second World War, "Tirkiluk" turns a strange Arctic menage into an embodiment of all the betrayal and self-sacrifice family life might ever entail. Perhaps there was insufficient Horror here to satisfy the proprietors of Arkham House; but if so, they failed to appreciate it in a transcendently skillful form.

MacLeod's Fantasy is surreal in detail, and merciless in implication. The quasi-mediaeval secondary worlds of "Green" and "The Giving Mouth" are in fact densely wrought expressions of the paradoxes implicit in all losses, all gains: in the first story, escape from the Gardens of youth and servitude entails the relinquishment of all beauty and all illusion, and in the second, to turn Hell into Heaven is to find no final contentment. The modernity of these tales strikingly belies their feudal trappings: "Green" seems at times like Great Expectations in Fairyland, and "The Giving Mouth" like a premonition of the magickal industrialism of The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) by Michael Swanwick (who, probably not coincidentally, introduces Voyages by Starlight). A similar ambiguity of effect can be found in "Ellen O'Hara"; the eponymous IRA member lives amidst, and is party to, the brutalities of contemporary urban terrorism, but finds the antidote (simple, obvious) to mundane sectarianism in talents of a supernatural kind...

And there is MacLeod's SF. The future will be decadent: how can conscience and integrity survive this? MacLeod provides a variety of answers, none entirely comforting; but the four SF pieces here share a sense that it is nostalgia for the bright natural past that will be most corrupting in the utopias and dystopias to come. False seaside resorts--affectations and negations in decaying worlds--are the focus of "Starship Day" [available to read elsewhere in infinity plus] and "The Perfect Stranger", permitting telling explorations of the mentality of escapism. "Marnie" is an account by an obsessive lover of his flight from an unsatisfactory Twenty First Century back to the Twentieth Century that first confounded him; MacLeod captures perfectly here just how infantile a misdirected personality can become, just how vicious a circle can be. "Papa", a more optimistic description of the utopia that might just somehow be achieved in spite of the foregoing instances of gloom, yet requires a difficult and imperfect accommodation by its protagonist to a future that has all but forgotten him. A voyage best unremembered, a child sold, a love lost twice over, a desperate bid to retain contact with the receding wavefront of the present: these are MacLeod's mementos of tomorrow, delivered cogently, thoughtfully, with profound humane urgency.

Voyages by Starlight is a fine book, humanist SF of a very high order. A second Ian R MacLeod collection is surely overdue--think of "Snodgrass" [available to read elsewhere in infinity plus], "The Summer Isles", "The Chop Girl", and many others uncollected. In consideration of his services to it, the future owes MacLeod (and us) that much at least.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 19 August 2000