The Light Ages
by Ian R. MacLeod
Steampunk’s an odd genre, infinitely promising both in its science-fictional and fantastic forms; but it’s relatively rare that actual steampunk works seem significant on more than a surface level. The form’s built up an intriguing visual vocabulary, indeed even an iconography, but it still seems to me that there’s territory yet to mine. The idea of a fantastic Victorian era, shaped by both the fantastic and the industrial, seems to hearken back both to the great Victorian social realists, who wrote of the mechanism of society and its effect on the individual, and to the great Victorian fantasists, who built the genres of fantasy and of ‘scientific romance’ that became sf. The potential seems to be there in steampunk for a fusion of these two approaches. But I don’t know how often that actually happens.
Consider The Light Ages, which fairly explicitly hearkens back to the preoccupation of the Victorian realists with the world around them. In MacLeod’s world, industry is at work mining a substance called aether, which is magic; his story unfolds through the life of a poor boy named Robert Borrows, who grows into a revolutionary and brings about a great change in his world. Which is where things diverge from the realists, of course. In fact, it’s where traditional genre plot structures creep in; a couple of significant individuals bring about significant societal change by uncovering the hidden secrets which drive their world. It’s difficult to see how that applies to the world around us.
But on a more profound scale, I think the project of the realists has fallen apart in this book long beforehand. Consider the language of the novel, for example. A number of people (such as John Clute) have praised MacLeod’s writing style and use of language. I don’t particularly see the greatness in it. MacLeod’s style is certainly fine enough, but seems exceptionally modern for a world that is pre-modern in many of its sensibilities. The language doesn’t fit the story, because it doesn’t fit the characters, because it doesn’t fit the mentalities of the characters. The structure of the sentences, the construction of the paragraphs, sound like a modern novel; and, while it is ostensibly a tale told from a perspective following a great change in the world, the character doing the telling grew up in the earlier world.
So that’s a problem: the mentality and structure of MacLeod’s fictional society aren’t really reflected in the language his characters use. Generally, the politics of the novel reflect the same flaw; they’re very simple, and the way MacLeod presents his society is very reductive. There’s right, there’s wrong, and that’s really that. As opposed to either Dickensian grotesques, or to the depiction of rounded characters capable of both good-hearted and cruel actions.
If realism is ultimately not the strength of the book, neither is its use of the fantastic. I find MacLeod’s attempt at capturing a sense of wonder fall flat. On the one hand, aether’s described as a magical substance, but rarely seems to provoke any sense of the numinous or create any truly magical effects; on the other, MacLeod’s writing never catches the true magic to be found in the Victorian fantasists like George Macdonald or William Morris. It’s true that the book is about the industrial exploitation of magic, but one would hope revolutionaries opposed to such exploitation would be able to articulate the wonder that’s being so drastically thinned. But that never really happens.
So in the end, the book’s an interesting attempt, with sporadically interesting prose. I can’t say I found it particularly memorable. But I still have hope for seeing something better, both from the steampunk from, and indeed from Macleod as a writer.