27 May 2004

The Light Ages and the Reviewers

Upon publication, Ian R. MacLeod's The Light Ages received the kind of reviews writers dream of, garnering hyperbolic praise from some of the most respectable voices within the world of speculative fiction: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, James P. Blaylock, Jeff VanderMeer, Paul Di Filippo, Tim Powers, and Gardner Dozois -- a group of men of varied tastes and backgrounds.

The Light Ages is a good book, even, at times, a remarkable one. Certainly, it is a better SF novel than 90% of the other SF novels published in 2003, and it probably even deserves an award or two. Nonetheless, it is also a novel with some considerable flaws, and the sort of praise it has received does a disservice to Ian MacLeod and his editors, because MacLeod is a writer of tremendous talent and promise who may be capable of producing a truly great book one day, so long as he doesn't read his reviews. (He has written some truly excellent short fiction.)

First, let me praise the book, because some of what I have to say may make The Light Ages seem to be less of a novel than it is. MacLeod has, in general, a good sense of language, and just about every page of the 452 (and one fifth) pages of the Ace paperback edition has at least one interesting sentence on it. At times, there are entire paragraphs that are gems of image and sound. The novel has some magnificent passages describing, in loving detail, the world MacLeod has imagined; a world of industrialized magic, of great poverty and ostentatious wealth, of revolution and reaction. The central fantastic device, a substance called "aether" that powers the magic of the world the way oil powers the magic of so many of our own lives, is a clever and broad enough one to allow some resonant hints of allegory. The ending is extraordinary in its pragmatic cynicism, its refusal to offer fairytale answers to socio-political situations, and the choice of a final moment is utterly perfect.

However, such accomplishments are all but overpowered by the flaws of the book, because even if it has one good sentence per page, there are so many pages that the mediocre sentences reign and the clumsy ones, of which there are too many, play on the sensitive reader's ears like a chorus of banshees in a library.

Other elements could overshadow the mediocre and occasionally bad prose, A gripping plot, provocative ideas, engaging and multifaceted characters, a complex narrative structure -- all are capable of drowning out clanging strings of words. Certain chapters of The Light Ages are gripping, every fifty pages or so there's an idea worth thinking about, and a few of the minor characters are engaging. But that's about it. The narrative structure, rather than being complex, is numbingly linear except for a framing device at the beginning and end that is a confusing way to start a book and a painfully plodding way to end it (except, as I said above, for the last page, which in some ways makes it worth the plod).

The fundamental problem with the book is that the main characters are dreadfully dull, particularly the narrator, Robbie Borrows. MacLeod seems to have wanted Robbie to be both Nick Carraway and The Great Gatsby, but he's made him, instead, into an observer who affects much of the action without any panache. It's the worst of all worlds, because, unfortunately, we the readers are stuck with him for the entire length of the book. The other major character, Anna/Annalise, is at first fascinating, but she is ultimately so superficial that I found myself hoping, by the middle of the book, for her to die a painful, miserable death that would force her to become compelling. Some of the minor characters are compelling, and the glimpses we get of them are tantalizing, particularly a William Morris-type character named George, who would have been a far more interesting protagonist than Robbie.

My subject here, though, is less the book itself than how it was received. John Clute offered, as is usual for him, a thoughtful and balanced review, but in most of the others we encounter a vastly different book than the one I have described, for the reviewers find it "stocked with utterly believable primary and secondary characters" (Gabe Mesa, SF Site), "compulsive in the reading" (John Berlyne, SF Revu), "hypnotic, beautiful and stirring" (Rick Kleffel, The Agony Column). While to me all of these statements are hyperbolic, I don't find any of them particularly bothersome, as reading tastes and experiences differ from person to person, and it may be that this just isn't my book.

However, one review seems so drunk on its own delusions that it can't be allowed to stand unchallenged. Thus, from Paul Di Filippo at SF Weekly:
Dickensian, melancholy, full of smoky vistas and moments of contrasting sunshine, MacLeod's book is simply the best fantasy novel since Mieville's Perdido ... MacLeod's character portrayal is the book's next dimension of greatness. Robert Borrows is as rich and deep a figure as any in fantastical literature, from John Crowley's Smokey Barnable to Tolkien's Frodo. Every supporting character--and there are dozens--boasts, if not equal, then appropriate depths. Anna, as willful changeling, is both human and other, and the tentative love affair between her and Robert gives the book its central engine. As Robert realizes late in the tale, both he and Anna have "failed to recreate" as adults the "spells of love" they briefly sustained in their youth. And these characters move in a plot that is both leisurely and powerfully onflowing. Propelled by the central mystery of the day the aether engines stopped in Bracebridge before Robert was born, the story twists and turns into knots before suddenly transforming to a coherent tapestry whose central revelation both shocks and confirms.

But MacLeod's final, most effective conquest is achieved and delivered through sheer language. Sentence by sentence, this book is the most well-written you will have read in ages. Never clotted, yet always poetic, MacLeod's prose flows like aether, bewitching, transformative and seductive. Here, style truly supports content, and vice versa.
Di Filippo's review verges on being an irresponsible piece of writing -- not because of any one statement, but rather because of the cumulative effect of many statements suggesting he either is discussing a book he wishes he read rather than one he actually did, or that he does not have a particularly developed sense of literature.

Many reviewers have called the book "Dickensian", but this is one of those terms, like "Kafkaesque", that has become so debased as to be meaningless. Anything that takes place in London and has both upper-class and lower-class characters is, apparently, Dickensian. Daniel Green at The Reading Experience has a good list of the elements that made Dickens Dickensian: "picaresque abandon, his outsized characters, his exuberant and fluent style, above all his humor ". The Light Ages has none of these elements in any great amount, and has no humor whatsoever. It's not a terrible book, but neither is it Dickensian.

Di Filippo writes, "MacLeod's book is simply the best fantasy novel since Mieville's Perdido." I do think Mieville's Perdido Street Station is a phenomenal novel, but to say that The Light Ages is the best fantasy novel since Perdido is questionable -- 2002, the year between the two books, produced, among other works, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (technically not a novel, but it functions best as one), Jeffrey Ford's Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, Jonathan Carroll's White Apples, and Yann Martel's Life of Pi, all of which have at least one element superior to MacLeod's novel. (And those are just some prominent novels published in English. Search through the lesser-known works and the non-English-language works and I'm sure there are plenty of other fine fantasy novels from that year.)

"MacLeod's character portrayal is the book's next dimension of greatness." Considering that some of the various reviewers who had better things to say about The Light Ages than I do mentioned that they found some of the characters to be thin or too passive, I don't think I'm skating far over the edge of reason to say that Di Filippo has an overdeveloped sense of character portrayal, perhaps one that allows him to fill in entire pages the author should have written himself. The fact is, Robbie's character is one of the most cliched, generic, and tedious bildungsroman protagonists I've encountered outside of hack fantasy novels, and anyone who has read anything other than the pulpiest of bestsellers should be able to see that character portrayal is this novel's greatest flaw. Robbie's character never particularly suffers, at least not in any convincing way, and most of what happens to him happens because it's convenient to the plot. Anna's character is worse, and many of the people they encounter throughout the book are little more than names or agglomerations of adjectival ticks.

"...the story twists and turns into knots before suddenly transforming to a coherent tapestry whose central revelation both shocks and confirms." This is how the story progresses: something happens, Robbie goes somewhere, he discovers something, and then we get a 3 pages of exposition explaining what it means (generally it means that somebody he thought was just a random human being is actually Deeply Connected To His Life). It's the same feeling you get after reading a bunch of mystery novels where at the end of each the detective has to explain how all the clues tie together. It's more or less coherent if you're patient enough to read every word of the expositional mucas, but shock and confirmation have nothing to do with it.

"Sentence by sentence, this book is the most well-written you will have read in ages." I'm sorry, but no, I happen to have read quite a few books within just the last few months that are superior to this one, not only in the quality of the sentences, but of their paragraphs and pages and chapters. If Paul Di Filippo has not, he should not try to force his poverty on you or me.

Since the language is so often praised, I should be less general about my concerns with it. To begin, let me mention two problems that will be invisible to many readers and of little concern to most. First, MacLeod does not know that the pronoun "I" needs to be the subject of a verb and not the object, leading him to write sentences such as "The cloth spread out from Anna and I as we walked away from each other across that little Kingsmeet hall" (274). Second, his favorite word is "which", a word that appears on every page, in every paragraph of any length, and sometimes so many times as to create an annoying swishing sound in the mind's ear. The use of "which" versus "that" as a relative pronoun is the source of much grammatical debate, but a writer could easily ignore the debate and still determine that it might be a good idea to vary his word choice now and then, particularly when words are in close proximity. (Of course, an editor or proofreader would help, but the book clearly was not proofread, as there are a considerable number of obvious typos.)

Beyond these specific problems -- and keeping in mind that at certain points the prose does, indeed, soar -- in general the language is competent and not flashy. I'm perplexed by the constant references to MacLeod's supposedly rare stylistic abilities, because there are plenty of writers with a better, and certainly more consistent, sense of language. The frequent praise of his skill with English suggests either that the reviewers are so used to the bland, serviceable prose of most SF that when they encounter anything other than pages filled with subject-verb-object sentences, they can't help but enthuse all over themselves; or that the reviewers are tone-deaf to literary style.

Finally, Di Filippo writes, "Here, style truly supports content, and vice versa." How? It's an admirable goal, but there are truckloads of other books that actually succeed with such a goal.

I could go on, but this is painful, and I don't want to beat this poor novel into the dirt, because it doesn't deserve that, nor does one less-than-thoughtful review deserve to be given more attention than it warrants.

Here's the real problem: In these days of cluttered bookshelves and overflowing remainder bins, it can be tempting to scream about a book that deserves respectful muttering. Unfortunately, SF has become like poetry, in that every new poetry book arrives festooned with blurbs proclaiming it to be the greatest thing since the invention of the alphabet. Reviews tend to be somewhat more restrained than blurbs, but not by much, and it's rare to find negative poetry reviews, because the attitude of most editors seems to be that poetry is a marginal enough activity without readers being told not to bother with certain books.

I fear SF reviewers, seeing the genre as marginalized, may feel similarly -- that they should at least try to be nice (after all, what if you meet the author at a convention?), and that when they encounter something better than average (the average being pretty damn bad, anyway) then they should praise it as The Best Possible Novel You Will Ever Encounter In Your Entire LIFE!!!!!!!!

Ian MacLeod's first novel, The Great Wheel, got very little attention, and so perhaps the Olympian roars of praise for his second were meant to counteract that. All I can say is The Light Ages is readable, diverting, and, in general, competently written. With the help of an astute editor, it could have been a phenomenal book. It is not. With luck, Ian MacLeod's next novel will be, and he will have earned the reviews he garnered this time.

Update: For reactions, see this post.

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