Journeys by Ian R Macleod
Journeys by Ian R Macleod (Subterranean Press, 2009) is a rarity in these more frenetic times. Instead of hyperactive heroes running around doing exciting things, this is a collection of gentle, reflective stories in which we’re invited to take a moment to review what we think or believe about our lives and the times in which we live. It’s a quiet joy to find such skill and artistry in pursuit of simple truths.
“The Master Miller’s Tale” is a melancholic elegy on changing times and frustrated hopes of love. As this culture of ours evolves over time, experience accumulates and skills are honed to the point where, often, the true masters of each trade seem to have a magic touch. The farmers have green fingers and know just when to plant, the herdsmen when to drive their animals or birds to market. When machines come, some have a feel for tending them, nursing them along when they would normally fail. Blacksmiths tease iron into ever more interesting shapes, develop steel in hot furnaces. Glass blowers and china figure makers produce art. Yet how can technology be kept back? Hand looms are replaced by water-powered mills, steam trains displace horses over distances. The list of old skills supplanted by technology grows ever longer. Historically, there have always been Luddites and saboteurs who destroy the new, but their influence is transitory and often subverted by industrialists who want to see their competitors put out of business. Surrounded by all this, our master miller grows from a boy who’s smitten by the squire’s daughter into the man. Sadly, when she returns, she offers him employment without reciprocation of love. Not surprisingly, this leaves him full of self-pity and embittered. The old ways of harnessing the wind were always going to lose out to water, steam and ultimately electricity. But he failed hard and not graciously, keeping the flame of his infatuation alive to the end.
“Taking Good Care of Myself” is one of these rather elegant idea stories that stays only as long as it needs to make its point which is that, if there’s no-one else available to act as a carer, what better person is there to do the job than yourself. And then, when the task is complete, you can go back to being the selfish loner you’ve always been. “The English Mutiny” is a pleasing alternate history in which England becomes a vassal state of India, our soldiers recruited as the backbone of their army as their Empire spreads across Europe. This story describes our own Sepoy Rebellion as squaddies get the bit between their teeth and decide they’d rather be free than treated like shit. It has melancholic undertones as the charismatic leader of the London end of the mutiny catalogues the loss of the great English traditions represented by the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The cultural imperialism practised by the Indian masters has wiped out English heritage and left us with the impoverished superstitions of the Mughal Empire (and the enforced circumcision and lip-service to Islam). It’s a tragic ending to a nation that had early aspirations to greatness.
“Topping Off the Spire” is a strange story of a priest who must overcome his fear of heights in order to bless the capstone in a new church spire. In a sense he’s taking the final steps in a journey that the building makes in finally containing the old magic worshipped long before Christianity came to the country. What had an unbounded sense of natural wonder is now diminished by entombment in stone. Ironically, the stone also excludes light from the nave and brings new darkness where there was light. “Elementals” is a mirror image to “The Master Miller’s Tale”. There’s also change in this world as technology moves us on from the “natural” to the “manufactured”. A family may have made its fortune from selling guano as fertiliser only to find the bats insufficiently incontinent to supply modern needs. At such a moment in time, the family may cease to believe in its own self-worth. It may seem to fade away into insignificance and surrender itself to an unremarked death. But if you believe strongly enough, then you can work a kind of magic in which you reinvent yourself, pulling back from invisibility and somehow acquiring a kind of glamour. Traditionally elementals, or fairies if you prefer the word, were thought to possess the power to cloak themselves in success, to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So if you want to avoid the Miller’s slide into oblivion, all you have to do is to believe strongly enough in the person you could become as the future beckons. “The Camping Wainwrights” is an exercise in nostalgia as a family rally stoically around a patriarch stuck in his own 1950’s time warp. Such men have a perpetual motion quality about them, never once slipping from their assigned roles as keepers of family traditions. They go to the same places, do the same things, have catch phrases endlessly trotted out. Their lives are limited by habit and stifling to those who don’t like Perry Como and other musical stars of that era. How much easier life would be if everyone could just move on.
“The Hob Carpet” thinks about alternate history in which Neanderthals did not die out but grew up alongside the Cro-Magnons. How difficult and offensive it might be to hear this slave class of subhumans described as somehow related to “humans”. It would run contrary to every religious and moral certainty of superiority to believe homo sapiens should respect and care for these “hobs”, nurturing them and helping their intelligence to flower. “On the Sighting of Other Islands” poses the old question, “Are we alone?” as we float through space on an endless tide of night. Finally, “Second Journey of the Magus” constructs a different outcome to the Biblical story of Jesus, wondering what might have happened if Jesus had chosen to prove his divinity and taken the throne to unite the tribes of Israel.
Journeys is a delight. Beautifully written stories explore the ideas with patient rigour, teasing out meaning and presenting truth as the author sees it. There’s strength and weakness in the protagonists, their humanity and fallibility undeniable. Thank you to Ian R Macleod for writing them and to Subterranean Press for producing such a treasure.
For a review of another collection, see Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod