Reading Ian R. Macleod’s 2002 Breathmoss has brought to a head my thoughts regarding Ursula Le Guin’s influence on speculative fiction. The number of times her name appears in my notes (Macleod’s novella included) has built to the point I’m even introducing this review with the idea. A bucolic coming of age in a sci-fi setting, the author’s style and the story’s outcome are (thankfully) his own, but the mindset behind it walks a path pioneered by Le Guin, all to positive effect.
Breathmoss is the story of Jalila, a girl living on the planet Habara. Her family moving their home in the highlands to a town by the sea at the beginning of the story, Al Janb is a wildly different place than the pastureland and open plains where her formative years were spent. Living in an all female society, her parents (in fact three women) are optimistic the change will bring benefits to their lives. But Jalila is less sure; every new and odd thing appears in an unfavorable light compared to the highlands. She sees rocket ships launching, aliens wandering the streets, and, an even stranger thing one day: a man. Life swirling ever faster, Jalila must find a way through her new reality toward her future.
A coming of age story with a premise similar to The Tombs of Atuan, Breathmoss channels Le Guin’s verve affectingly and effectively. Sensitivity to the little details of life, the all female community, the uncertainty of youth encountering the unknown, and the development of character are trademarks Macleod cleaves to. Not an imitation or homage, however, the author also takes the story in his own direction. Despite the fantasy feel, the foreign plants, animals, and space travel render the story sci-fi. Likewise, Kalal is no Ged, and Jalila does not have the same development experience as Tenar. The storyline subtle, Macleod explores Jalila’s relationships with her family, the man, neighbors, lovers, and herself, all with a sublime eye to how they contribute to the life choice she ultimately makes. Realist not wish fulfillment, she must give up some things to gain others. And it is this bittersweet pain which clings wonderfully to the prose, drawing the reader into Jalila’s life, and making Macleod’s story an affective one.
The influence significant, permeating Breathmoss are innumerable elements of Arab/Middle Eastern culture. Not appropriated 1:1, Macleod extrapolates but does not try to disguise the source. The all female community, for example, is a spin on harems. There are also a number of ideas (like sufis, kofta, djibbah, kebap, minaret, etc.) which are readily identifiable as “Middle Eastern”. But Habara not being Earth and the story set in the future, there are likewise a number of neologisms describing native flora, fauna, culture, and technology (geely, fuul, dreamtent, etc.). The line between the Middle Eastern and ‘native’ words often unclear (at least for people who are not familiar with said culture), the result is a world and society with an ‘otherly’ feel. If there is a fault to the novella it could be an over emphasis on this point: if Middle Eastern culture is not under discussion, why the heavy usage of its elements? Certainly a reader can benefit by learning about the unknown terms, but that they add nothing to the themes serves to distract from rather than enhance the story.
In the end, Breathmoss is a poignant tale of a young woman’s development that transcends tragedy and comedy, the denouement touching. Never melodramatic, Macleod should be commended for keeping the scope realistic despite the setting being another planet. A hint of melancholy residing between the lines, Jalila’s trajectory caroms between the little joys and pains that make life what it is, culminating in a choice that accepts the innocence of youth is behind and the responsibility of growing up is ahead. The twist on Middle Eastern culture only marginally interesting, readers should tune in for the personal themes of a young person finding their place in the universe—yes, just like many of Le Guin’s stories.