From the photograph that accompanies the story about him in the London Guardian for 14 June 2003, Sir Peter Davis, the "under-fire chief executive" of an unattractive British supermarket chain known as Sainsbury's, is a portly gentleman with very cold eyes and a grin nobody in his right mind would think of as ingratiating.
Sir Peter people of his sort are exactly the sort of people who receive knighthoods in Britain has just accepted a lump sum of four million pounds from his firm for agreeing to become its chairman, even though he has been under fire because, during his tenure, Sainsbury's has not done well; if Sir Peter continues to perform badly, there is some possibility he will be fired, in which case Sir Peter will retain only half of his promotion bonus. On the same day that this deal was announced, Sainsbury's also announced the firing of 200 staff. It is not believed that their redundancy notices made any mention of the fact that the savings so generated would help pay for the promotion bonus accorded the man whose incompetence as chief executive had been threatening their workplace, and who had just now fired them. It is as a response to this historical moment we are now living through a period which might be described as the triumph of pharaonic Capitalism that a novel like Ian R MacLeod's The Light Ages is perhaps best understood. The surface of the tale may glitter with that strange shotsilk hypnopompic melancholia that marks so many steampunk novels set in alternate nineteenth century Englands, but deep inside we discover that the fuel which drives the narrative is not desiderium but rage.
This inner engine is hard initially to detect, perhaps because the story that takes up most of the surface of The Light Ages is a tale of frustrated love told in the first person by a dolt; but there are routes into heartwood. We might begin with the nineteenth century, where almost all steampunk novels have been set the most relevant here almost certainly being William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1990), in which the hierarchies of science and society have literally been engineered into the ravaged London of the tale in the form of tangible pyramids: insolent pyramidal edifices appear throughout both The Difference Engine and The Light Ages, and the word pyramid itself crops up rather a lot. But there is a difference: in the Gibson/Sterling novel, fossilization into pyramids represents a kind of catalysis of the alternate-history moment, which is circa 1850, a sudden paralysis of the First Industrial Revolution, as though it had overdosed on steroids. In MacLeod's tale, which is not very precisely dated, that fossilzation has taken centuries to mature; and what appears to be a nineteenth century steampunk venue is in fact at least a century later. The Light Ages takes place more or less now; the new Age whose coming its cast induces may be taken as more or less contemporary with our own "failed" Millennium. And the icy fixity that underpins the tale may be taken as a sign that, in this novel, pharaonic capitalism, the capitalism whose expression in the mirror of time is a pyramid stamping on a human face forever, triumphed long before.
So The Light Ages is a novel set in a fossil culture ruled by pharaohs. The secret of the power of those in command, the unguent which has hamstrung history, is aether, which MacLeod never describes in terms unambiguous enough to get a fix on, but which could be described a kind of gas or charge which is extracted from underground veins. It is then woven into a kind of literal silk, which is used to formulate runes of power and/or is woven into the inner structure of anything from engines to pyramidal edifices to jewelry to clothing whose workings or nature can be enhanced. After 1678, when aether was discovered, a network of Guilds has evolved, and has ruled Britain (Parliament having been dissolved) for centuries. The world, and the novel, are full of guildmasters and grandmasters and greatgrandmasters and so on. Even those who work close to the actual aether and who are therefore at risk of being transformed (by a process that sounds like a body English of radioactivity at work) into changelings and driven from society even these laborers are tendered guild honorifics, for all the good it does them; because, as the case of Sainsbury's and Sir Peter deposes, those who make are those who are disappeared; those who work on the mine face are those whom the pyramid crushes;
Once, these had been ordinary men. Now, struggling in horns and veined billows of impossible flesh, flightlessly winged and sprouting sightless eyes, they were angels awaiting a different resurrection. After all, changing could happen to anyone, or at least to those guildsmen who laboured sufficiently close enough to the real means of production to expose themselves to the dangers of aether.
Which seems a clear enough expression of something that might be called rage.
The underlying problem for anyone reading The Light Ages is that coherent utterances of the sort I've just quoted appear infrequently and late (the quote above is from page 184) in the long text. And it is not until page 376 that the penny finally drops for the sad obsessed memorialist whose tale we've been hearkening to for so long, not until then that he realizes the consequence of his discovery that the aether mines in his Yorkshire home town of Bracebridge have not actually been producing aether for years. He is thinking about his friend Saul, a political radical who'd
forgotten about the power and pull of these buildings [the pyramidal London headquarters of the greater Guilds], or he'd never really known. He failed to understand what he was really fighting, which was aether and money the true might of the guilds . . . for money was magic as well. How, otherwise, could the aether engines of Bracebridge still pound the earth when they produced nothing?
Which is not, I guess, a question the owners of Time Warner thought to ask the owners of AOL before selling their company to a list of telephone numbers.
So we don't get exposed to the bones of MacLeod's thought about his story until we have almost given up; what we get instead is the long life story of Robert Borrows, born to guild workers in Bracebridge, who enters into an odd uncle-nephew friendship with over-genial guilt-ridden Grandmaster Harrat; and whose ailing mother (anyone ailing in the novel can be assumed to have gotten too close to the real means of production) takes him to a nearby abandoned village, where he meets the aged changeling, Mistress Summerton, and her charge, Annalise, who is also a changeling, but utterly beautiful, a kind of mutant changeling, a newborn out of the poison, it may be. Robert grows up, hops a freight out of Bracebridge, gets to London, where he stays.
London is gloriously done; though it is very nearly impossible to strike an entirely original note about a city already envisioned hundreds of times in fantasy texts ever since Dickens invented it, whatever the city depicted may be called for purposes of displacement. MacLeod's version is luminescent, meticulous, particolored, drenched. There are echoes of Gibson/Sterling of course, and of Leon Garfield's Apprentice books, of Michael Moorcock's Mother London, of Kim Newman's The Quorum (which is another pyramid tale), of Paul J McAuley's Fairyland (for the changeling underclass), and of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station; but the author I was myself most reminded of, perhaps because of MacLeod's loving attentiveness to the characters who people his vision, was Joan Aiken, echoes of whose Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence cleanse the palette throughout the London sequences of The Light Ages. In the end, whatever it echoes, MacLeod's novel is central to the seeing of London. In my own reading, I expect to return to some of the greater passages here, for they seem almost physically to exhale the great city.
It is harder to return to Robert Borrows, because he is truly something of a sadsack; and it may be that MacLeod wished to convey something of his essentially secondary role in the events he describes through his choice of surname. Whatever, Robert survives OK in London; takes up with radicals who hope to overthrow the Guilds and to bring about a new Age; finds Annalise (now known as Anna Winters) again, though he never comes to grips with her (nor, for that matter, does MacLeod, really); and takes us on various guided-tours of various venues usually occupied, in The Light Ages, by folk who are more relevant than he is to the unfolding drama.
That drama, those events which culminate in a new Light Age, does rather uncomfortably unfold between two poles of telling: the "Tolstoyan" pole, in which large changes come about for large reasons that are built into the structure of the world being changed; and the "Hugo Gernsback" pole, in which absolutely immense changes come about through the actions of single inventor guys who are shy about gals. Robert, who is shy about gals, and who never actually sleeps with his Anna, sort of causes the immense change of Age through his inadvertent discovery he was more interested in finding out what happened to his and Anna's parents one bad day in the mines with Grandmaster Harrat, which is that they were irradiated by a charge of aether that the world he lives in is deeply and dangerously fragile: that the pharaonic capitalism of the guilds has actually reconstituted itself, in secret, from the production of aether to the production of services. The service industry of the guilds in The Light Ages is to pretend that aether still exists. But a larger pole of telling intervenes.
I will not expose that larger pole to the reader, as MacLeod is not really very convincing about it, and as there is, in fact, an element of surprise in its unfolding. Suffice it to say that the second pole has something to do with the "engine ice" which aether products turn into when exhausted; and with what one might call an engine of history from deep down. In any case, as the novel ends, just as in the world we co-inhabit with Sir Peter Davis, everything is declared to change; but the stigmata of underlying realities continue to glow through the skin the shotsilk melancholy skin of the telling of the tale. In the end, The Light Ages does not announce an instauration of all things. It is too sober, and too adult, to do that.
It does, however, suggest that when an instauration or a Millennium, or a new Age comes upon us, our little lives may shake as though we inhabited a great kaleidoscope. It may further suggest that there is nothing new under the kaleidoscope; that, after the kaleidoscope we inhabit
is shaken, light simply falls differently on the just and the unjust, as does a rainbow. This is small mercy, perhaps. But it is mercy.
John Clute is the pre-eminent critic of science-fiction and fantasy, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and writer of more flinty, terrain-gobbling reviews than the normal mind can encompass.
His newest collection of reviews and essays, Scores: Reviews 1993 - 2003, which includes some written for The Infinite Matrix, is now available. It can be ordered from Amazon, and from Old Earth Books.