Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Ian R. MacLeod: The Light Ages

The Light Ages is a remarkable book. It's not commercial, and it does present a dark image of an imagined world, with not so much as a smile anywhere in it. But it is a memorable piece of work.

Why so? Chiefly, I think, because of the quality of the prose. I am the last person to witter on about the importance of style; a good style, as far as I'm concerned, is a style you don't notice. And various critics seem to have had a little difficulty in forming the right words to describe Ian R. MacLeod's style.

'Written in dense, cadenced prose,' says Locus, and sorry, but I don't know what cadenced means either, but it sounds OK. 'Rich as treacle and equally black,' says the Guardian.

I myself would go for hypnotic, and perhaps lyrical, without being particularly happy about either of those terms. But whatever it is, MacLeod's sentences, at their best, seem to induce an almost trance-like state in the reader.

In the right reader, that is. On reflection, I think this book will appeal to the following sort of person. Ideally, you need to be English; old enough to have some sense of the flow of events during the last fifty years at least; you need to know something about the industrial north, preferably from personal experience; a knowledge of Marxist theory wouldn't do any harm; and you need to be prepared to consider an alternative view of history.

I fit this bill pretty well. I am certainly old, and have studied the history of England in the last two hundred years, both formally and informally, for decades. My parents were born in Bradford, Yorkshire, and I can remember the days when all you could see of Bradford, from a hill, was a mass of smoke from the chimneys of the mills and factories. And I am certainly receptive to alternative views of history.

By now you may be wondering what The Light Ages is about. Well, it's a first-person account throughout, telling the life story of one Robert Borrows. He lives in an England which lies in a universe which is parallel to ours -- a world where Joshua Wagstaffe discovered aether in 1678. And aether, with its associated magic, powered the industrial revolution. That revolution brought with it massive wealth and privilege for the aristocracy, and reinforced a rigid class structure. Robert Borrows is a witness to, and a participant in, what happens when the aether runs out and the resentment of the masses boils over into revolution.

Fine though it is, this book is by no means 'commercial' in publishing terms, and I find myself wondering, not for the first time, how a writer like this manages to make a living; but on his web site Mr MacLeod tells us that he teaches English and creative writing. He adds that it has taken him a long time to get anywhere with writing novels, and even longer to sell them; I can't say that I am surprised by the latter circumstance.

The MacLeod web site includes an interview with the author in which he says this: 'In the current publishing world, I feel that novel-writing is much more compromised than short fiction. There are so many ridiculous preconceptions based around what's genre, what's commercial, and what the public appeared to like last year, all of which is then buried beneath a layer of dross.' Too right, brother, too right.

Specifically, The Light Ages took MacLeod about five years to write. Just don't ask about how much money it generated, or what that works out at per hour.

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