Ian R. MacLeod’s latest collection, Past Magic, contains eleven stories from over the past sixteen years. While MacLeod is a true wordsmith and there’s much to recommend about his fiction, typically, his stories have little linear movement with endings that don’t have a neat payoff. Many of his tales are slow and brooding with little dialogue and quite a bit of exposition. Often, they seem to draw their power from the backstory, rather than the now-time drama, which makes them seem infodumpy at times. These stories are like an impressionist painting where the entire narrative has an accumulative effect to create a unique whole.
The title story, "Past Magic," takes place in a near-future UK with global warming and other environmental concerns that have made the world a dire place. Tony has come back to the Isle of Man at his ex-wife’s request. Claire is the heir of her deceased and wealthy father and likes to collect artists. Tony was a successful writer when they met, and while her fidelity wasn’t open to discussion while they were married, they had a daughter, Steph, who held them together for several years—until Steph drowned in a boating accident when at sea with Tony. Now Claire has cloned Steph, and the new Steph is undergoing deep therapy so she’ll be very much like the old Steph. And Claire is cloning someone else as well.
Though I had some questions about the timeframe of this cloning process and the practicality of the deep therapy treatment, I was willing to overlook possible inconsistencies. MacLeod got the characters and the tone right, and that’s what matters. I did wonder where this one was headed, figuring it was tapering off to an ending that was merely thoughtful, but the author had a wild card up his sleeve. A great opening story for this collection.
"Snodgrass" is an alternate history told in first person with John Lennon as narrator. The time is the early nineties, and Lennon was never assassinated. Barely a Beatle, he quit the group at their first recording session when George Martin didn’t think much of "Love Me Do." The Beatles, consisting of Paul, Stu, George, and Ringo, did go on to be well known if not hugely famous; without Lennon, they weren’t the supergroup our version of history knows them to be. The key point that changed history was that Stu Sutcliffe never left the Beatles and died of a brain tumor. Lennon often said that Stu’s death affected him greatly, so the implication is that this was a pivotal moment that made Lennon the driven artist he became in our world.
The story opens with Lennon in his fifties, broke, behind on his rent, and going to work in an office stuffing envelopes. He’s living off a young prostitute named Cal, who tells him that Paul McCartney dropped by with tickets to The Beatles show that evening. John hasn’t seen Paul in years. That evening, in the bathroom of the concert hall, Lennon bumps into a janitor he calls Choirboy. A fruitcase, as Lennon calls him, he has a copy of Catcher in the Rye. No assassination attempt is made, but still that is a spooky moment.
Being a huge John Lennon fan, I’m predisposed to this type of story, knowing this history well enough to pick up on the little telltale hints. But I’m not sold on how well Macleod rendered the artist. Lennon seemed a little bookish; I saw shades of the author shinning through. I was also a little puzzled by the ending, expecting something more confrontational, though perhaps that was Macleod’s point. Still, an entertaining piece and a must for Lennon fans.
"Living in Sin" tells of a father who has a daughter out of wedlock. In this world, there is proof that God exists. The father and his common-law wife are lucky that their daughter, May, wasn’t born deformed, as most children of fornicators are. When May is a teenager, the father wonders what she’s doing with her evenings. Has she become a slut? Curious, he leaves the house and finds her in the park, spreading the word of God.
In his afterward, MacLeod admits that he’s always had a love-hate relationship with religion. This piece will elicit a strong response from many, I’m sure. And since each reader’s personal beliefs will influence how he or she perceives this story, I’ll leave it to the individual to draw his or her own conclusions.
"Nevermore" takes place in a future Paris where reality engines have turned much of the world into virtual reality. Among the nano-smog and nano-droplets that etch fantastical imagery upon the real world, Gustav is a frustrated painted with a wife he can’t escape from. Elanore was over a hundred when he met her, while he was still a relatively young man. Due to medical technology she looked perpetually young, but science could do nothing when senility finally set in. Not wanting to live that way, she euthanized herself, and now lives on as a ghost in virtual reality. And Gustav can’t escape her, even in her death.
This isn’t a perfect story—how many are?—though it is an ambitious one. Much of it is backstory and exposition that stalls the forward motion toward the middle, but MacLeod renders it so well that it scarcely matters. There’s one scene where Gustav and Elanore are at a Van Gogh cafe that is so surreal it took this reader’s breath away. Most people are familiar with the great Dutch painter’s Post-Impressionist style, but it’s Macleod’s meticulous brush strokes on the page that bring this to shimmering life. Recommend.
"The Golden Keeper" follows Lucius Fabius Maximus, an ancient Roman overseeing a group of counting houses in Lower Egypt. Because of a massive debt his family left him, he searches for treasure in his spare time amid various Lovecraftian themes. While interesting in places, I found my interest flagging. A thoughtful, meticulously told tale, though a little long and brooding.
"Returning" tells the story of an astronaut caught in a quantum loop, returning again and again to Earth after passing through a black hole. This was first published in Interzone in 1992, and while not a terribly original idea for a story even then, as always, MacLeod’s superior skills prevail. I have only slight interest in and understanding of quantum physics and singularities, but the balance seemed apt, enough to convince the casual reader and satisfy even the hard-SF fan before getting back to the astronaut and how his mission has made his life a bizarre nightmare—a nightmare that achieves power through the normality of life around him as he fades from his family’s existence. What struck me as frightful was how his family has been through all this so many times before, making them almost happy to see him leave, knowing that his ghost-self will soon return. Intriguing and haunting.
"Two Sleepers" is a stream of consciousness story based on an interesting notion. A woman says goodbye to her husband one morning as he drives off to work. After going inside, she goes upstairs and finds a strange couple asleep in their bed. On closer examination, she discovers it’s herself and her husband. What makes this tale so odd is that she does nothing about it. She doesn’t wake the couple, call her husband at the office, or call the police. All 6,500 words of this story are mostly her watching the couple sleep or moving about the house wondering what to do. She also comments on her husband’s photographs, which is a strong clue to what has happened.
Although not a lot happens, the reader is pulled along by the narrative. By the end, I felt like I knew this woman as well as I’ve ever known anyone, yet I never learned her name. Nothing much is explained, but that’s not important. A modern fantasy which sets an eerie, contemplative mood.
"Home Time" involves three time travelers in Antarctica at the time of Amundsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole. While time travel is possible, the past is immutable. Knowing this, the three approach the doomed Scott party in March of 1912. At 14,000 words, there was a lot about this that I found extraneous and that could’ve been cut. It seemed long.
"Well-Loved" is told in a hard second-person point of view. The "you" of the narrative is always in the reader’s face as you lurk the mean streets and then enter another’s skin. For me, second person works best when the POV takes a back seat. Used as it was here, I found it impossible to enjoy the story. Perhaps you’ll do better.
"The Bonny Boy" is an old world fantasy told with 19th-century prose. Master and Mistress Pattison greet two changelings in a world of trolls and hobgoblins. They are there for reasons concerning the male infant of the title. The antiquated style is fitting, but I found the exposition overly heavy in places. Towards the end, the pace picks up, but getting there was a bit tedious.
"Nina-With-The Sky-In-Her-Hair" is a surrealistic tale of an older man, Max, and his beautiful young wife, Nina. Though Nina appears to love Max, she is having an affair with a much younger man, Vernon. The story begins with a merchant who wants to sell Max the sky, then offers him a piece of blue silk which Nina becomes enamored with. Wanting to please her, he has a dress made of this fabric which seems to have properties of the sky. MacLeod employs the metaphor to great effect, using images of the sky, shadows, night, and day to convey a man desperately trying to keep the woman he loves.
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