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Ian R. MacLeod: Not Quite Rock ’n’ Roll November 2003

Ian R. MacLeod took a law degree and worked in Civil Service before making his first sale, Nebula nominee "1/72nd Scale", in 1990. Subsequent stories include "Grownups" (1992); "The Summer Isles" (1998) and "The Chop Girl" (1999), both winners of the World Fantasy Award; "Isabel of the Fall" (2001), "New Light on the Drake Equation" (2001), and "Breathmoss" (2002), a Hugo nominee this year. Voyages by Starlight collected some of these stories in 1997; a second collection, Breathmoss and Other Exhalations is due in 2004.    
Photo by Charles Brown

Personal Website

His SF novel The Great Wheel appeared in 1997 and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Alternate-history The Light Ages appeared in 2003, and he is currently working on Electricity, set in the same world, due out next year. He lives in Birmingham, UK.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I have that science-fictional point of view. I always wanted to know what the elves were doing in Lothlorien when they weren’t singing. What were the sanitary facilities like? J.R.R. Tolkien was an enormous influence on me. I read him at a very impressionable time, and I’ve reread the books many times since. I started off as a teenager reading adventure books by popular novelists like Nevil Shute and Alistair MacLean, and then my sister’s boyfriend introduced me to John Wyndham and Isaac Asimov, and there seemed to be so much more there. Then I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I was off. The ‘70s were a very good time to be reading SF, because SF was evolving. When I’d enjoyed Asimov, I could move on to Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany and J.G. Ballard and so on. Dangerous Visions came out. Robert Silverberg was really pushing the boundaries with work like Dying Inside and ‘Born With the Dead’. There was this concern about all of the things that interested me, and done in a very stylish and compassionate way. Real people, real settings, and also with Silverberg, this relentless logic. I started reading T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare relatively late in my academic career. Fortunately, they weren’t thrust down my throat when I was 12.”


“Like rock’n’roll, SF has always been essentially an American genre in its heart, but those Brits in both genres have always had a different angle and something interesting to say. In terms of historical background, I like the late Victorian era, partly because it’s about things changing, things breaking through. Although Dickens is very much a typical Victorian writer, he was pushing all sorts of boundaries. One of my all-time favorite favorite writers is Thomas Hardy, for his willingness to take enormous risks in his later books, particularly Jude the Obscure, which has elements that would not be out of place in the darker pages of a Stephen King novel. Within all the beautiful milkmaids and romantic scenery, he creates that sense of risk and danger.”


“In terms of having some sense of historical evolution between this book and the next, Electricity is set approximately a hundred years later. The point of the Victorian age having gone on so long is simply that there’s been no incentive for progression, because everything works so nicely as it is. If you think broadly of The Light Ages as being about like our own 1890-1900, Electricity is perhaps 1910-1920, so we’re lurching towards another favorite era of mine. Perhaps in my book I’m still lagging a bit behind that time, more in the Golden Age of the Edwardian era. Electricity has got working and things have improved technologically, to a degree. They now have their own version of the telephone (portals through space/time), though of course that’s reserved for the extremely rich. Mass communication, as it has come to our world, would not really be in the interests of the controlling influences.

“A lot of the book is set very much in one time and place -- one particular summer in one particular house -- but the events it foreshadows and leads up to are basically a civil war in England which brings about the turning of the age. Everyone talks about a north/south cultural divide in England, but there is an east/west cultural divide as well. In the book, the friction between the two main characters mirrors the development of this east/west civil war. To a degree, it’s about slavery, and it’s also about trade and industrialization and the keeping of the old ways and the old gentilities as opposed to modern industrial progress, old morality against new morality. Both the American Civil War and the English Civil War are influences, although it is not a war book; it’s more about the conflicts and loyalties that lead up to that and how they are resolved.”


“When we’re talking about the fate of the Earth and the fate of mankind, one other question is: ‘Is the universe essentially benign, or is it hostile, or does it not care either way?’ The basic concept of entropy, of things winding down, seems to be fundamentally built into everything we know about the way things work, and yet in a great city like London, everything’s so organized and so complex and so busy, it makes you wonder. I don’t believe in God but I do believe the forces we’ve been talking about have some sort of credence. I don’t believe they care about individuals, but I do think there is a positive force, perhaps something like the Gaia Theory. Of course, if the Earth is trying to rebalance itself, what would be the most obvious thing to do? Get rid of us.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the November 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.

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