As always with books published by Subterranean Press, Journeys (2010) by Ian R. MacLeod looks stunning. I love the cover art by Edward Miller. The collection contains nine stories, ranging from a few pages to novella length, all of them first published between 2006 and 2010. Personally I feel the longer pieces work better.
Journeys is an appropriate title for this collection, MacLeod takes you to unexpected places with his stories. In many of them, the setting is familiar, often historical, but with a few crucial changes. The collection opens with “The Master Miller’s Tale,” one of the longer stories in the collection and a good example of the changes the author weaves into his tales. It is set during the early stages of the industrial revolution. A master miller is trying to keep his wind-powered and song-magic-maintained mill in business against the more powerful steam devices that are starting to appear. It mixes nostalgia and admiration for the skill of a master of the trade with the inevitable demise of such occupations. MacLeod makes it even more tragic by adding a personal dimension to this development. I very much liked this story.
A few of the stories are told as the life and extraordinary times of character such and so. That definitely goes for the third story in the collection, “The English Mutiny,” which is an interesting reversal of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. In this alternative history, the British bit off more than they could chew in colonizing India and were conquered by the Mughal Empire sometime in the past. It’s told from a first person perspective by someone who plays a small but important part in the rebellion. Although the story pretty much unfolds like one would expect, I absolutely love it for the premise and execution. It is a premise that could easily be the basis of a novel.
“Elementals” is another tale where we get an eyewitness account of an extraordinary event. It appears to be set in late Victorian times, and features a man of the mad scientist type doing research into harnessing elementals as a perpetual source of power. In sharp contrast with “The English Mutiny,” where the outcome is pretty much inevitable, this story takes an interesting turn when it turns out that elementals are a bit more complex than initially thought. The idea of people whose influence is waning, literally become less visible, is an interesting one. I thought the ending was a bit cynical. The narrator doesn’t seem to have grasped the implications.
“The Camping Wainwrights” is the odd one out in this collection. It contains no fantastical, science fictional or supernatural elements. I thought this story was a bit predictable. The author tries to make the reader doubt some of the events in the story but it is never really convincing. It is humorous in a way. Many people will recognize the antics of the Wainwrights on their camping trip. I’ve been on a few myself where I had to wonder what the fun part of the trip was.
“The Hob Carpet” is the longest piece in the collection with the most complex premise. The setting is a world that is rapidly moving towards a new ice age, where humans, who are used to a warmer climate, use the labour of another sentient series, the Hobs, to live comfortably. This is a way of living that no longer seems sustainable. You can choose to interpret the setting as fantasy or see it more like an alternate history where humans coexist with Neanderthals. MacLeod’s description of the Hobs reminded me of Jean Auel‘s description of Neanderthals in her famous novel The Clan of the Cave Bear (which has proven quite inaccurate in recent years). There is often more than a little ambiguity in MacLeod’s stories but in this case the ethical problem this civilization faces is more than clear. The treatment of the Hobs is shocking and the story contains a number of disturbing scenes. What’s interesting about it is that the realization eventually comes through what the reader will recognize as Darwin’s theories on natural selection, but even the man who figures that out is far from innocent. I think this one is my favourite of the collection but opinions on it will probably be divided.
The collection contains a number of shorter pieces as well. Most of these didn’t do much for me. I guess the ones I liked least are “Taking Good Care of Myself,” which is just too short for the author to really develop the premise, and “On the Sighting of Other Islands,” which is so ambiguous that even after a second reading I still have no idea what the author wanted to do with that story (which, admittedly, may not be the author’s fault). I enjoyed the other two stories, “Topping off the Spire” and “The Second Journey of the Magus,” but they didn’t really stand out in this collection.
Journeys is my introduction to MacLeod’s work and he strikes me as an author who is very comfortable writing short stories. With the notable exception of “Taking Good Care of Myself,” the stories feel neither constrained by the word count nor padded and especially the first is a problem one frequently encounters in short fiction. Although not all stories in Journeys hit the bullseye, this collection shows that a lot of the more exiting, experimental and innovative writing in genre fiction is still being done in the short form. In Journeys, MacLeod experiments to his heart’s desire and more often than not, it pays off.