Breathmoss and Other Exhalations, Ian R. MacLeod, (Golden Gryphon Press, 1-930846-26-6, 24.95, 309pp, hc) June 2004. Cover by Bob Eggleton.
The final important new collection this month is Ian R. MacLeod's Breathmoss and Other Exhalations. The title is eccentric, but there is something long-breathed about the stories here: they evoke their settings in loving, sustained detail, and their characters are laid out with a parallel sensitivity and sensuous particularity rare in SF and fantasy. Long poetic sentences, long poetic paragraphs: MacLeod is a poet of English land- and city-scapes, and when he moves offworld, his painterly eye is inventive enough that his style is not crimped at all. Like Keith Roberts and Jack Vance, MacLeod possesses a genius of place; and, inhabiting his places as intensely as they do, his protagonists are thoroughly vivid also.
Breathmoss is only MacLeod's second collection — surprising, considering his eminence in the short fiction field. Many fine MacLeod stories remain uncollected, but the seven gathered here are probably the pick of the crop. The emphasis is on longer pieces — three novellas, four novelettes; and MacLeod excels in this context, with enough space to flex his descriptive wings but sufficient compression to keep his storylines romantically, elementally, simple. The tale he quintessentially tells is that of a pair of lovers, one of whom is bound to mundane specificity, a quality in conflict with the other's devotion to experiencing the wider universe as generously and passionately as possible. The resulting emotional schisms are dramatic, and MacLeod dramatizes them with due sympathy; out of them emerge deeper reflections, on how differently creatures of the same species view reality, and how this may frustrate, stunt, separate. Thus, in MacLeod's far-future Ten Thousand and One Worlds milieu, an Arabian Nights-inflected merging of feminism and Islam, two couples are drawn apart: in "Breathmoss," Jalila, who is destined to become a mystical starship pilot or tariqua, leaves behind Kalal, who is inclined to sail merely planetary seas; and in "Isabel of the Fall," Isabel and Genya represent two different threads of the monastic ideal, one contemplative, the other pragmatically scholarly, and no good can come of their friendship in a jealously fundamentalist culture. In "Verglas," a woman and her children have already altered themselves into flying predators, living every vital moment to the full, but their husband and father holds back, seeing the value of remaining merely human. In the Second World War fantasy "The Chop Girl," a bomber pilot represents airy liberty and good fortune, his lover limitation and bad luck. "New Light on the Drake Equation" richly depicts the loneliness of an old SETI astronomer who in seeking aliens has lost the much nearer, and surely more lovely, stranger who once sought to draw him into the extraordinariness of the everyday; and "The Noonday Pool" contrasts Edward Elgar's quest for artistic immortality with the eternal present of the werefox with whom he shares the English countryside. The pattern is constant, but its variations, like Elgar's, are splendid.
The concluding novella, "The Summer Isles," is somewhat more complex, however. Here, Germany has won the First World War, and it is Britain's lot to become poor, radicalized, the terrain of fascist dictatorship and the persecution of Jews and homosexuals, among others. Projecting Nazi Germany onto the England of the '30s is a most effective counter-factual device; and in the opposition of the narrator, historian Geoffrey Brook, and Britain's Fuehrer, John Arthur, MacLeod sums up very neatly the division in the British psyche at the time, between Churchillian grit and abject appeasement. (Christopher Priest worked a not dissimilar strategy in his 2002 novel, The Separation.) But — uniquely in Breathmoss — this is not a romantic polarization; it holds no real possibility of conciliation and mutuality; John Arthur is quite unadmirable, and it is Brook's side of the argument — caution, rational moderation — that wins out. Perhaps this is the side MacLeod ultimately espouses. But whether that is the case or not, MacLeod's fancy roams gloriously free in these stories, and its synergy with his command of the textures of ordinary life makes Breathmoss a brilliant book, the schisms in its creative heart luminously reconciled.
— Nick Gevers, Locus, June 2004