SF by Starlight: “The Master Miller’s Tale” by Ian R. MacLeod

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In quiet command of his theme and with the relaxed self-assurance of a sophisticated story-teller—whose prose is as fluid and smooth as even the most style-conscious reader could wish for—Ian R. MacLeod takes us to a peaceful, agrarian world in “The Master Miller’s Tale” (from F&SF, May 2007) where wind-borne magic’s dying days meet head-on the birth of a would-be steam-powered, mechanically progressive industrial revolution. Clashing cultural viewpoints are mirrored on the individual level through the eyes of the main character, Nathan Westover, son of the master miller of grain whose highly respected, generations-old grain mill sets magestically atop Burlish Hill, and to which all in the village send their grain to be milled. Following his father’s passing, young Nathan becomes the new Master Miller. This is his story.

Nathan Westover represents time-honored tradition, as well as the embodiment of the working-class hero, if you will, whose very livelihood is at dire peril from technological “progress”; his family has lived on the ground floor of their large, grain-dust coated mill for generations. A childhood female friend, Fiona Smith, from the old-(now mostly gone)-money side of the tracks (who lives in the large house beside a beautiful lake at the bottom of the hill upon which Nathan’s wind-powered Burlish Hill mill commands a spectacular view), embodies the innovative, progressive, business-oriented side to this coming clash between the old and the new. She has grown up with money, is used to money, and she eventually marries money (though it is a half-hearted arrangement). With her newly-married money, coupled with her business upbringing and consequent frame of mind, she invests in steam-powered mills—which work when a wind-powered mill does not—Nathan’s. Her technological innovations in service to the profit motive (which do aid the village, for they no longer have to slowly lug their grain all the way up to Burlish Hill, and then wait for the winds to power the grinding process, and then transport it back down the hill) are in direct competition to Nathan’s milling operation, and while she repeatedly seeks, over the years, to seduce him to her point of view (literally and figuratively, though he has resisted all overtures of any kind), they end up (in a classic sense) tragic enemies, for Nathan still retains a soft spot in his heart for her.

The full story is worked through masterfully, with an artistic symmetry and sense of closure rarely attained in all but the very best short fictions. The brief opening segment calmly sets the stage for what is to come—it is but historic prelude; MacLeod uses a removed, distancing voice to pique reader interest immediately for it imparts, quite gracefully yet simultaneously, through tone, voice—and the subsequent mood invoked—of something once nostalgically remembered (Burlish Mill and the way of life it once represented) and what is now naught but crumbled ruins via the passage of time and a bygone era, but can also be received as a piece of history viewed, or remembered, from what could be seen as an historian’s—or story-teller’s—wistful perspective; the pastoral gone passé.  This seemingly benign introduction serves as subliminal counterpoint to the story’s human, down-to-earth, sometimes tender, sometimes tense, emotional and violent expose, which chronicles the whys and wherefores, the dual emotional and ideological forces at play with which Nathan, the new Master Miller, must cope.

And then we have the magical component which ties everything together,  manifested in the cloaked, enigmatic figure of the wind-seller. As did his father before him, Nathan purchases different kinds of wind to power the mill when there is none. These magical offerings come in the guise of bits of rope, wood, hair, or other material oddment where different kinds of wind have been captured, specially knotted to enhance its power. With the drop in business due to the rise of the steam-powered mills, Nathan can no longer afford the wind-seller’s product. The wind-seller’s onstage appearances are few; his presence is used primarily as a bookend effect surrounding the main story. His final appearance is fitting, for it gives detailed closure to the entire piece as well as offering a flicker of hope that maybe a captured lock of Fiona Smith’s hair, and the special wind it contains—grasped from Nathan’s outstretched hand—will be put to proper use.  

Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Master Miller’s Tale” shows how effectively a short work of (less than trilogy-length) fantasy, when rightly told, is able to portray on a personal, individual level, such over-arching crises as the dying of one way of life and its struggle to survive against the onslaught of another. Highly recommended.