Profile of Ian R. MacLeod

Dawn comes up over the Territory. A rooster crows, and in the slums and shanty towns that cling to the coastline, swarms of raffish citizens pull themselves out of beds and hammocks and up from bar-room floors. Hung over, despairing, hopeful, resigned, strangely elated, each according to temperament, they prepare for another day, another book, another short story, another stab at literary success.

But the Territory is unimaginably vast and the settlements cover an insignificant fraction of its area. Away from the coast, paved roads turn to dirt and dwindle to rutted tracks and then to nothing. The jungle closes about them, moist, mysterious, unmapped. Few venture into the interior. It is perilous to cut new trails. There might be dragons.

Still, they go, two or three a year. Some who were great in their time dare too much and go too far. Orchids claim their bones. Others return broken and fearful, never again to stray from the safety of the known and formulaic. But some few come back with sacks of moonstones and strange tales of serpents that sing and of wise machines living in ruined cities that glow gently in the three-mooned night. And so the adventurers persist. Look quickly and you can see one such writer shouldering his rucksack and slipping quietly into green shadow.

His name is Ian MacLeod.

A writer at the outset of his career is a dim figure indeed, difficult to make out in any detail. MacLeod, however, has been around just long enough that he is starting to come into focus. He's been published in Asimov's and Interzone and F&SF and Weird Tales and who knows where else. He's had a story on the Nebula ballot. His first collection, Voyages by Starlight is forthcoming from Arkham House. Inch by painful inch, he's brought himself to the brink of that most coveted moment when the field must not only acknowledge his existence, but actually consider the merits of his work.

What facts are known about MacLeod are simple enough and broad in outline. He lives in a suburban community called Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands of Great Britain. He took a degree in law at Birmingham Polytechnic, put in ten years in the Civil Service, and is now a full-time writer. He writes primarily for the joy of it, but also as a means of enlightenment, a way to understand things about himself and others that intrigue or annoy or upset him. He admires Proust and Bradbury, Ballard and Le Guin, John Fowles and P.G. Wodehouse, Powers and Cabell and Clarke, Boris Pasternak and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gene Wolfe and Sylvia Plath and George R.R. Martin, among others. He'd like to write like all of them, in all styles and about all things.

Turning to his fiction, however, a more specific picture begins to emerge. For no artist can write about all things equally well, and those things that manage to complete the long journey from idea to print are usually those that lie closest to the bone.

By testimony of his stories, then, MacLeod is particularly fascinated by or concerned with re-inventing, improving, changing, or redeeming the past; young love--older, mature love seems to him much rarer--and lost love; events that take place on an island; warm, sunlit places, blue sky and sea, white-walled towns; twilight; sleep; sex, generally enjoyed by the parties at the time, but compromised in some way; isolation, failure to communicate; family structures, generally damaged; the beautiful, mercurial woman; the dour, somewhat introverted man; the shortcomings of bureaucracies and other large organizations; and most particularly the land over the hill, the house with golden windows across the valley, the garden beyond the wall.

This last, the vision, sometimes tragic, sometimes sustaining, of a better world existing Elsewhere, seems to me central to MacLeod's art. Or maybe not. Reflecting on the lost and unobtainable, after all, has always been one of the prime driving engines of fiction. Still, time and time again, his flawed and injured--which is to say, badly in need of what "story" provides--protagonists reach out yearningly for the distant and transcendent. And this is exactly what makes his stories core stuff, central to the enterprise of fantasy and science fiction. They grapple with the essential in ways that the mainstream cannot.

MacLeod's worlds have that rare and wonderful quality of being spacious enough to contain everything--joy and despair, children and skyscrapers and power breakfasts, small jokes and great empires, wooden ships and surgical lasers alike. All told with a bright inventiveness and in a lively, varied, and even (when it suits his purposes) playful prose style.

MacLeod's best work is characterized by high contrast, a mixture of horror and enchantment, of fierce anger and great beauty. In worlds where enormous intangible forces are inexorably at work, such beauty may be invisible to the inhabitants, but it is very much in evidence on the page.

And here I must stop.

To what ends MacLeod puts his highly-contrasted, angry, and beautiful engines of transcendence, his readers will have to discover for themselves. For beyond this point I refuse to generalize. Each story carries its own weight of intent and emotion, serves its own purposes, plants its own incendiary devices. For the sake of those who have not yet read his work, I've been careful to say nothing about any particular story--though I have favorites--because the single greatest pleasure of discovering a writer is that for once, briefly, it's possible to approach his work without the burden of experience, with innocent eye and a glad willingness to be surprised.

I had a dream the other night. I'm in a bar swapping lies with Lucius Shepard and Geoff Ryman and this guy who claims to be J.G. Ballard, but since I've never met the man, who knows? We're drinking Red Stripe and there's something by Robert Fripp on the jukebox. Maybe I'm getting a little loud.

Suddenly the door slams open and somebody we've never seen before staggers in. He's got that wide-eyed jungle look to him and he holds up both hands, cupped. They're brimming with what might be moonstones and then again may only be chestnuts. He has to swallow before he can speak and when he does speak, just one word comes out.


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