Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod
It’s perhaps appropriate to start off by noting the dominant approach to storytelling on display in Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod (Open Road, 2013). Unlike the majority of writers, this author prefers a dense prose style and often avoids dialogue. Many of the stories are in the first person, involve interior monologues or use reported speech. Personally, I find this a welcome change, particularly because the author’s voice is so pleasing. Indeed, the whole collection is a delightfully eclectic array of themes and authorial concerns. Being a “best of” collection, this draws many stories familiar to me from previous collections and reprints in Best of the Year anthologies — the overall quality of this collection is outstanding.
“The Chop Girl” is a story from my era, a story of life and death on one of the World War II RAF stations which used to send bombers off across the Channel or the North Sea, and wait for them to come back. I’ve encountered this type of superstition before in the real world. It’s the idea of a jinx or hoodoo which is carried by a person and passed on as bad luck by contagion. In this case, the Typhoid Mary is a young girl who, like all young people thrown together in the heat of a war, is not averse to showing affection to the pilots. Except, those she favours seem not to return from their missions. When the penny drops, she’s shunned, of course. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot could break the jinx. But what would happen both at the time and after the war? The answer is straightforward and utterly realistic, as it should be when you’re dealing with superstitions. “Past Magic” pursues this slightly melancholic view of the identity we shape for ourselves and impose on others. It uses the fictional reality of cloning to speculate on whether the replacement version of the person can ever be the same as the original. The problem is that, even with access to all the previous person’s recorded memories, the clone would still be a new person who came into being too recently to have had all these past experiences. Or if a child was replaced, it would grow up in ways that might be similar but. . .
“Hector Douglas Makes a Sale” offers us a brief meander through the thickets of door-to-door selling, pausing every now and then to unravel some of the mysteries of technique that can distinguish between an average performer and a salesman who can charm birds down from trees to buy what he’s selling. “Nevermore” explores the world of unreality we sell ourselves when we fall in love and later use to deceive ourselves when the grief we feel on the death of the loved one threatens to overwhelm us. When reality can be overwritten by technology, so that even the dead can continue in an existence of sorts, how do we feel when the body of our spouse dies but the ghost continues in existence as if nothing had really changed? The collision between technology and the reality of emotion is nicely explored as the artist loses his muse but ultimately remembers what’s important to him.
“Second Journey of the Magus” sees Balthasar, the only surviving member of the original three Magi, return to the Holy Land to see how Jesus is getting along. Curiously, even though he sees what others might take as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God and the potential accessibility of Heaven, he can’t quite shake off his doubts. Of course, scientists have always had doubts about whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, hence “New Light on the Drake Equation”. In all the world, perhaps the only thing we can ever really be certain about is that humans have an innate capacity to surprise us by the things they do. Indeed, in many ways, humans as a species of diversity are probably as alien as creatures from another galaxy when viewed through the prism of age, one generation looking at what the later generations have become. And sometimes regretting decisions made earlier. And talking of decisions we might regret, here comes a wonderful alternate history story dealing with something far more significant than what the world would have been like if Germany had won the war. “Snodgrass” considers what might have happened to John Lennon if he’d left the Beatles before they really took off. I suppose the moral of all these stories is you should never look back with regret.
“The Master Miller’s Tale” is a very clever story making the transition between old and new. We start with artisan worlds where sometimes taken-for-granted skills born of generations of experience seem like magic. But as technology progresses, machines replace the craftsmanship and improve on performance. Over time, few consumers notice or care. Indeed, the products they need are often cheaper and more plentiful. Only the craftsmen feel the pain of redundancy and understand what has truly been lost. “Isabel of the Fall” also deals with the interface between humans and technology, looking at a future world in which the key to survival is light. Here faith by rote has become stronger than knowledge and understanding. In this case, the happy accident of avoiding the ritual blinding proves the saving grace for the people. In the world of the Dawn Singers, only the blind are Kings. The problem then is how to react to what can be seen when our heroine is not supposed to be able to see it.
“Tirkiluk” is a strangely beautiful story of a man sent a meteorological station on a distant patch of land, sometimes visited by Eskimos. When a pregnant Eskimo needs help, he provides shelter and food. All is under control until there’s an accidental fire. Then we gain an insight into the power of the mind to maintain the body so that the woman and her newly born son will survive the rigors of winter. Finally, “Grownups” is one of these slow reveal stories in which the growing boy speculates on exactly what it’s like to be an adult. Of course, to us mere mortals, this is quite easily divined. But suppose the world was complicated by the presence of a third sex. In such a place, it might actually be rather more difficult to understand where babies come from. Indeed, adults might be significantly less inclined to discuss the transition from child to adult and the subsequent need to consider reproductive matters. Out of fear or natural perversity, some children might try to hold back time.
Snodgrass and Other Illusions has everything you could hope to find in a collection from science fiction, through fantasy, to horror. But above all, the quality of the writing and the ideas shines through. It’s a must-read!
For a review of another collection, see Journeys
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.