It is not until almost the very end of Past Magic—the penultimate page of the last story—that the key to the collection is made explicit. In "Nina-With-The-Sky-In-Her-Hair" (1995), Max, an aging businessman, tragically loses his young wife. He reflects:
Standing in the graveyard, breathing in the clean smell of the new earth, Max decided that only he and the little man in the grubby suit who stood on the far side of the grave really knew what life was about. He pondered the irony: that you had to live through to the end of things before you discovered what was important, and by then it was too late. (p. 285)
Most of the other stories in the book would start at this point; or, to put it another way, "Nina" is remarkable in part because it tells its story directly. Most of the other stories in this book are about the fate that Max finds himself in: freighted with memory, too late, too old. In some stories the protagonists are granted a second chance; in others they simply have to try to come to terms. In almost all the magic is, in fact, in the past.
Nowhere is this layering of old over new more explicit than in "Returning" (1992), in which an astronaut is found wandering, alone and amnesiac, on the shore of the lake outside town. It seems that he has come back from the stars, and not for the first time (hence "Returning" and not "The Return"). We are never told exactly what has happened to him, or where he has been. Rather, the point of the story is to explore the traveler's dilemma: can you go home again? The answer, as always, is no. Things change, people change, children grow. But, though the story comes within a hairsbreadth of greatness, Macleod ballasts it a little too heavily; something has also changed the astronaut on his travels, with the result that he maintains corporeality only through an effort of will. When he wonders, therefore, in a moment of hollow intimacy, "how close you had to get before you made contact" (p. 178), it is a push to a place we have already reached.
This lack of architectural balance is a flaw shared by a few other stories in the book. The resolution of "Nevermore" (1997), for example, involves an acceptance that seems too easily won, while the closing cadence of the title story is an uneasy balance of sophistication and pulp. The whole of "The Golden Keeper" (1997), with its attempt to marry Macleodian introspection with Lovecraftian creeping horror, is a rare but clanging tonal error. I'm not objecting to a lack of subtlety as such, since Macleod's best stories often achieve their effect through unsubtle means. Rather, what jars is the lack of grace. In those best stories, often there is a crushing weight of feeling that makes the ending seem so obvious, so simple, that the barest hint in its direction can be devastating.
Perhaps a certain unevenness is to be expected. There is, after all, a suspicion that Past Magic exists less to present a coherent portrait of its author than to fill in the gaps, to collect the early stories missed by Voyages by Starlight (1996) and the late stories missed by Breathmoss and Other Exhalations (2004). (There are more of the former than the latter, given the novelwards trajectory of Macleod's career, which makes the collection itself another form of past magic. Only two stories in the book were published this century, and of those, "The Bonny Boy" (2006) is a deleted scene from last year's The House of Storms rather than a short story proper.) To say, therefore, that this is Macleod's weakest collection is probably true, since the cherry-picking has been done and there is nothing here as perfect as "1/72nd Scale" (1990), "Starship Day" (1995), or "Isabel of the Fall" (2001). And yet, this is a criticism that lacks bite, because Ian Macleod produced what is probably one of the half-dozen finest bodies of genre short fiction to come out of the 1990s, and almost all of it is worth reading.
To demonstrate what I mean, let me return to the stories I glancingly criticised earlier. Like the book a a whole, their virtues outweight their flaws. "Nevermore" is a substantial novella, set in a future where virtuality has been superimposed onto reality, making the latter redundant, to the point of usurping the very word. Like Chris Beckett in a recent story sequence (beginning with "Piccadilly Circus" in the May/June 2005 Interzone), here Macleod concentrates on someone who has been left behind, rather than an early adopter. Gustav is a painter in an empty Paris, unable to abandon art even though nobody needs or wants it. "Now that he couldn't afford to buy enough reality," we are told, "Gustav had no option but to paint what he saw in his dreams" (p. 67). But he is derailed by a visit from his dead ex-wife, Eleanore. The framing of the story—an old man, visited by an old flame, inspired to rake through old memories—is reminiscent of several other of Macleod's stories, among them the brilliant "New Light on the Drake Equation" (2001). However, Gustav is perhaps more bitter than that story's protagonist, or less good at numbing the pain. Meeting Eleanore again, in a cafe, some time after the breakdown of their relationship, he muses that
There was a kind of abandon in all of this—new ideas mixed with old memories. And he understood what Van Gogh had meant about this cafe being a place where you could ruin yourself, or go mad and commit a crime. (p.73)
There is a similar sense of grand ruin throughout "Nevermore," an unstable brooding that stands in contrast to the wince-inducing clarity of "New Light." Paris is crowded with reality engines and drenched in "nanosmog," and the times when extravagance was a part of the the everyday landscape—we are told offhandedly of the day the moon was set on fire—are gone. The sense of emptiness is palpable. So if Macleod seems to let Gustav off a little too easy, seems to give him a release he has not quite earned, we can be forgiving, because the intensity of any other ending is a little terrifying to contemplate. Would that we could all accept that, for all the disruption that technological innovation can create, it is ultimately people who change.
It would perhaps be tempting to argue that for Macleod the speculative qualities of a story are merely a means to an end, tools to access the particular quandary he wishes to examine. Such an argument can, I think, be shown to be mistaken by looking at a story like "Past Magic" (1990). This is a story about clones that is, on the face of it, as scientifically implausible as (to pick a recent and much-discussed example) Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005); here, clones can be aged miraculously, and can undergo "deep therapy" to gain access to their original's memories. An obvious way to read the story, therefore, is to read it as Ishiguro should be read, as a story that is not about cloning, but rather about second-order effects. The protagonist, Tony, travels to the Isle of Man to see his ex-wife, her new partner, and the clone of his six-year-old daughter, but finds that "This new Steph was a jumbled jigsaw. Pieces that fitted, pieces that were missing, pieces that didn't belong" (p. 10). As with Eleanore in "Nevermore," Steph's SFnal status seems irrelevant; the point is that people change when we're not looking. And yet, obviously, Steph doesn't recognise Tony, either. She is not just his estranged daughter; she is a clone. Macleod's characters are always shaped by the larger context in which they live. It matters that this is the future, it matters that time has passed, it matters that Steph is a clone. "Past Magic" is set in a time of gloomy global warming, in which Tony can reflect that his ex had lived "as if there was no tomorrow, which wasn't that far from the truth" (p. 12)—and in the end, unlike Gustav, he can't adjust. He has to leave.
In addition—and yet another reason that Past Magic is an apt title—"Past Magic" is a story with tremendous resonance. It's a characteristic that I think may be central to Macleod's work as a whole: a use of the past to freight stories with meaning. While explaining the process of deep therapy to Tony, a doctor says, "Didn't you write fiction? You should know that memories and the past are quite different propositions" (p. 11). That distinction carries through many of the stories here. Macleod illuminates his characters through echoes—echoes of memory, as in "Returning" and "Nevermore"; echoes from worlds that never were, as with the brilliantly authentic voice of the down-and-out Lennon of "Snodgrass" (1992) or the grimly religious reality of "Living in Sin" (1991); or echoes that distort the history we already know, such as the attempted rescue of Captain Oates in "Home Time" (1998). This helps to explain why relatively little actually happens in most Macleod stories: they are about the processing of what has already happened.
I mentioned "Nina-With-The-Sky-In-Her-Hair" as unusual for refusing this structure. Its exact opposite is perhaps "Two Sleepers" (2000), which is, more purely than any of the other stories in Past Magic, built around a single moment of experience, a single striking image—"A man and a woman were sleeping in our bed" (p. 183)—and the challenge of working out a response to it. Indeed, the narrator (the woman) is all but paralysed by the sight. She flees downstairs, she creeps back upstairs, she wonders if the illusory couple's relationship is different to her relationship, she debates whether to call the police. The couple become something to push up against, "a toehold on a different kind of reality" (p. 194). At the end of the story, we can't be sure whether the narrator has lost her grip or crested the summit, but either way, her escape from stasis comes as a relief—and, given the other stories in the book, something of a surprise. We might wish that even such an ambiguous possibility of escape could be as certain for Macleod's other characters, or for ourselves; but it cannot be. It is, after all, only by seeing our stories through to their end that we find what is important.
Niall Harrison is senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons, coeditor
of Vector, and a founding member of The Parentheticals. (He figures
that giving away his secret identity down here doesn't count, since
nobody reads the bios anyway.)