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The Light Ages

Ian R. Macleod

Ace / Penguin Putnam

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-441-01055-5

Publication Date: 05-06-2003

456 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: 07-04-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Science Fiction, General Fiction, Fantasy


Melancholy is a complex emotion. It promises the union of opposites, and can deliver quite a bit more. Properly evoked in rich, textured prose, melancholy can suffuse a reader's consciousness for days, leaving one distracted, distantly happy, strangely sad. If you're ready for a prolonged bout of melancholy, then plan on reading Ian R. Macleod's 'The Light Ages'. Macleod's powerful, poetic writing manages to create an England that never was, and simultaneously turns the reader's world into something that need not ever have been. Society and technology about us dictate the turns we take. We're faces moved about by a faceless crowd comprised of complex humans just like ourselves. We're a fractal race, replicating the past even as we destroy it. Macleod manages a beautiful destruction in this novel, bringing about a feeling of wonder and wistfulness tainted by the needs and deeds of gross humanity. Life may be hopeless, but it's certainly filled with wonder and terror. That's got to count for something.

The power of Macleod's novel derives in part from his very clever conceit. In spite of many descriptions as a "Fantasy", 'The Light Ages' has at its core a hard-headed concept directly out of 15th century science. Macleod's novel is based on the premise that somewhere back in what we'd call the Dark Ages, an Englishman discovered that you could mine aether, a sort of magic-power source. With it, shoddy engineering can be made solid; beasts can be altered, and something can be created out of nothing. As the novel starts, England's economy is an aether-driven nightmare of massive wealth and horrible poverty - same as it's ever been. Robbie Burrows begins the novel as an 8 year-old boy from a Northern mining town and finishes as a fully-grown man in London. The sweep is deliberately Dickensian, echoing many specifics of 'Great Expectations', shot through with magic. Like Dickens, Macleod has a fairly diverse social and political agenda. With the epic scope inherent in a lifetime story, Macleod has got more than enough room to pursue his interests.

Macleod's prose skills will win over many readers by the end of the first page. He has the perfect knack for creating a strong mood and an innate sense of vision. It's hypnotic, beautiful and stirring. But this is not a fast read. Robbie's story will play out over many years, and though the mysteries he experiences at the beginning of the novel will play a part in the end, getting there is not a matter of jump-cutting through the years. Instead, the reader is given the whole cloth of Robbie's life. Because this novel is resolutely not a pulse-pounding page-turner, those in search of such material are advised to look elsewhere. Macleod lets the plot wander about a bit, and occasionally it gets away from him; on one occasion a character is introduced twice, with the more complete history coming the second time around. But this is practically unnoticeable in Macleod's sea of beautiful prose.

Macleod matches the quality of the prose with the quality of his concept. The implications of aether-based technology are many and fascinating. Some if it is a direct swipe at the false age that now surrounds the fewer and fewer of us still bathed in the glow of a media massage. For every family sitting comfortably enjoying television there are ten sharing a crust of bread for the evening meal. That ratio certainly holds in Macleod's world. The usage of aether has environmental implications as well. Robert's mother is the victim of an industrial accident involving aether, and the result is one of the most striking sequences in the novel. Macleod brings home the emotional consequences of environmental ignorance with wrenching eloquence.

Much of Macleod's vision is political and economic, and the magic slacks off a bit once we've been given an atmospheric introduction. This is not a novel about aether; it's a novel about Robert Burrows, his childhood non-amour Anna, and the effects of technological evolution on the humans who exist within. 'The Light Ages' uses aether-based technology to show that any technology is a self-perpetuating trap. We do not use the resources; they use us. It's not a happy realization even though Macleod's aether is utterly unreal. It is not, however, fantastic. Macleod is pretty rigorous about his creation. This is a magic that's sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from technology.

Macleod's political insights are as depressing as his technological ones, but a bit less clear. He mixes so many opposites together that even readers used to such shenanigans will have a hard time wrapping their brains around them. That proves to be a really enjoyable aspect of this novel. As Robbie makes his way to London, he begins to feel that the Guilds, which pretty much run everything, are innately evil. He and his cohorts want to create a coalition of "citizens" dedicated to bringing down the rule of the guilds. This doesn't parse easily for readers of this world. We associate guilds with unions, but in the novel they're more like corporate entities. As Robert moves effortlessly through levels of society, it becomes apparent that the income gap between the overly wealthy and the endlessly poor is the real culprit, not the structure imposed by the guilds. Guilds are built around the technology. The luxury gap is built around humanity.

Macleod does a lot more than will immediately meet the brain in 'The Light Ages'. This is a novel that you will continue reading long after you've finished it. It's so complex that some conceits only unravel in retrospect, revealed in headlines or experiences from the real world that uncannily echo those of Macleod's creation. It's moody and intense in a way that may put off some readers, but will endear many others. Our hurry-worry life doesn't permit much time for epic visions. But those who make the journey through 'The Light Ages' will have their vision enhanced by the aether and magic of Macleod's novel. Is magic real? Macleod's novel makes it real.