Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R. MacLeod by Ian R. MacLeod
Review by Gordon O’Sullivan
Print Length: 330 pages
Publisher: Open Road Media (2013)
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“What the hell was it, Gus wondered, that made the living so reluctant to give up the dead, and the dead to give up the living?” In Snodgrass and Other Illusions, Ian R. MacLeod asks a lot of such questions but eschews any definitive answers. An award winning writer of speculative and fantastic fiction, MacLeod wrote these eleven collected stories between 1993 and 2011 using a wide variety of settings, most of which are, for the most part, shorn of fantastical elements. As the author comments in his introduction, “there are very few starships and even fewer aliens in my stories but plenty of things that really happened in history, or almost did, or might do soon.”
Running like life lines through every story is love, in all the normal forms with some abnormal ones thrown in for good measure. In ‘Isabel of the Fall’, a more traditional science fiction story, the idea of love leading to loss is explored in this touching tale where the innocent and unexpected flowering of friendship between two women is destined to end in thorns. That sense of fellowship being badly repaid is a recurring element throughout, there is a darkness apparent in all the stories. It’s certainly strong in ‘Tirkiluk’ where a World War Two British officer arriving at an Arctic weather station seeks answers, “I seem to have come a long way, just to make some sense of my life.” When a pregnant Eskimo, Tirkiluk, draws him in, seeking his help, his life changes and in the most radical way. There is however plenty of humour mixed in with the darkness. The purest alternative history story and certainly the funniest, is ‘Snodgrass’, “So you’re John Lennon, from Liverpool … You were the guy who left the Beatles.” John Lennon hasn’t been shot, is completely down on his luck and is bitter but still brutally funny, “George still looks like his Mum and Macca is Cliff on steroids”.
In ‘Nevermore’ a creepily affecting love story, MacLeod explores the idea of keeping our loved ones alive after death. In this collision between the theory of technology and the reality of emotion, when technology permits the dead to exist in a new form, how does a man feels when his dead wife calls him on the telephone? This temptation to interfere with human existence for love’s sake, no matter the consequences, is also explored in ‘Past Magic’ with its melancholic view of cloning. The question here is can the replacement version of a dead child ever be the same as the original? MacLeod asks are we justified in attempting to stretch and extend our natural lives in these artificial ways.
A seeming resemblance to the historical record often makes these stories stranger and more intriguing, these tales arguably wouldn’t have the same impact set in more fantastical universes. ‘The Master Miller’s Tale’, for example, looks at the conflict between tradition and modernity but through the prism of a Victorian-like courtship. An industrial revolution is occurring but one based on magic rather than coal, “all the old spells, you know, the stupid traditions, the mumbling and the superstitions and the charms and the antique ways of working, all of that’s on the way out. Modern spells aren’t about traditional craftsmen—not when you can mine the magic right out of the ground.” Love can also be lethal if you’ve dallied with “The Chop Girl”. A young woman on a World War Two RAF base is quickly seen as a jinx when the pilots she’s dallied with never return from their missions, all of them ‘chopped’. “… the idea of my being bad luck seemed to settle around me, clinging like the smoke of the cookhouse”. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot and someone who loves her for what she truly is can break that jinx but at what cost to himself? Love exacts a cost for everyone in this collection.
Snodgrass and Other Illusions is a fragrant stew of themes and authorial concerns, a challenging collection of stories running from science fiction through fantasy to horror, all with love at their centre. Some are set in a recognisable past, some in a reimagined here and now, while others reside in the unknowable future. MacLeod is a stylist, using a dense descriptive style and keeping dialogue to a minimum. Most of the stories start off with a recognisable background but then something radically different emerges. While some of the narratives stretch the idea of a ‘short’ story in their length, MacLeod get away with it through the innate strength of his ideas and characterisation. Overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking collection.