Visions of Paradise

Friday, August 06, 2004

The Light Ages

Ian R. MacLeod has achieved quite a reputation as a writer of short fiction over the past decade, regularly earning World Fantasy Awards and Hugo and Nebula nominations. The fact that he is neither a popular congoer nor a SFWA insider has probably denied him some awards he otherwise deserved. When his second novel The Light Ages was released last year, it immediately became a favorite of many critics, particularly those in Locus. Other critics offered it more tempered praise, partely because of shortcomings they saw in MacLeod’s political outlook in the book.

I don’t care much for politics, so I did not expect the latter to have much influence on me; in fact, the book’s political viewpoint was a bit naive even to me, but what bothered me more than that was that the novel seemed the cobbled-together plot of a short fiction writer who has not yet mastered the techniques of plotting a complete novel. Fortunately, MacLeod’s considerable talents managed to raise the book above its flaws and make a very enjoyable read out of it.

The Light Ages is set during a 19th century alternate England in which the Industrial Revolution has been fueled primarily by an almost-magical substance called aether. As a result of this, both the monarchy and the Parliamentary systems collapsed, and for the past hundred years England has been ruled by a rigid guild system: once you join a guild, which is often hereditary, you are a guild member for life. Outsiders are called marts and are generally frowned upon. It is a very rigid social system, as odious in the eyes of many lower-class guild members and marts as the Industrial Revolution horrors was viewed by Charles Dickens.

A third group is changelings, or trolls, who have been somehow mutated by exposure to aether in a manner, as Cheryl Morgan has described them, similar to how the x-men were created in the comic book.

Many critics have compared The Light Ages to a Dickens novel, but in truth the comparison were more superficial than deep into the philosophy of the book. MacLeod’s detailing of the dark, narrow streets of London and his preoccupation with the horrors of the guild system resembled Dickens. Borrow’s adventures, and the ultimate fate of the guild system, did not.

The first half of the book is primarily a coming-of-age story of Robert Borrows, the narrator of the book. Raised in an aether-mining town which supplies one-fifth of all of England’s aether, he leaves home for London where he rejects his father’s guild, but instead begins working for a revolutionary newspaper. At this point, the novel is set against the backdrop of the revolution which all the radicals are convinced is coming. In fact, little is shown about the social conditions which have either sparked or are currently fueling that revolution. And MacLeod gives us no reasons to assume that it is indeed coming sooner rather than later if, in fact, it is coming at all.

What he does show us instead is Robert interacting with other people in London in a form of extended travelogue written with glorious use of the English language. The atmosphere is mysterious throughout, much of which comes from the fact that none of the characters ever speak to each other. They talk at each other, often in obscure statements, occasionally leaving me as confused as Robert was, which perhaps was the author’s intend. Several of Robert’s companions gradually become the important secondary characters in the novel:

• his companion and fellow revolutionary Saul

• a changeling girl named Anna who Robert loves, but either does not realize or refuses to admit, and whose background is somehow connected to the death of Robert’s mother from aether overexposure

• George and Sadie, two members of the upperclass who befriend both Anna and Robert and seem accepting of the coming revolution even though it will likely wipe both of them out financially if it occurs

For half the book we follow Robert in his travels through London, but in truth there is very little growth in him or in any of the characters emotionally. The Light Ages is written in such a matter-of-fact, low-key manner that we really don’t get into any of the characters’ psychés except on the most surface levels.

But none of these flaws take away from the fact that MacLeod writes wonderful scenes, even if some of them seem a bit lacking in purpose or relevance. The death of Grandmaster Harrat, for example, was a powerful scene, but other than being a study in irony, it was all surface and rather pointless. And the times Robert dallied with the very rich were equally well-done, but other than developing his relationships with Anna and Sadie, they also served no forward-moving purpose.

After the revolution failed to happen as anticipated, Robert suddenly became preoccupied with learning the fate of his mother and the causes for one specific guild member’s rise from being a lowly but hated foreman in Robert’s hometown to one of the elite rich in London. There was no motivation shown for Robert’ sudden preoccupation, but his investigation ultimately led to an uncovering of such a web of deceit that it resembled poor Pandora’s opening the box: so much came flying out of it that not only Robert’s life, but the entire future of England ultimately changed because of what Robert learned.

If you have not yet read The Light Ages and plan to do so, I suggest you stop reading now, as I am about to play the spoiler!

Halfway through the novel, thanks to Robert’s investigations, the dreamed of revolution finally occurs–not logically, and certainly not convincingly, but necessarily because it was time for MacLeod to abandon his beautiful but unrelated scenes and concentrate on the novel itself. And it became obvious after the revolution that this novel was actually intended to be a meditation on the Kinks’ rock opera Preservation or the Who’s classic song Won’t Get Fooled Again.

The Light Ages required several drastic suspensions of belief for its plot to be acceptable, but mostly that was easy to do because in spite of all the problems in the structure of the novel itself, MacLeod’s scenes were still beautifully-written and most of them were enjoyable reading. It is too bad though that such beautiful writing and such inventive scenes were framed with a political polemic whose logic resembled an x-men comic book.


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