Steampunk, steampunk, steampunk. Though it is the beginning of 2014 and the steampunk ship appears to have sailed, our pants are still wet from the flood, and as the water recedes, we try to filter through the driftwood. Many of the titles deserving of disappearing as quickly as they washed ashore, some, however, will hopefully remain in the genre’s memory for a long time. At or near the top of that list is certainly Ian R. Macleod’s The Light Ages. As stereotypical a steampunk story as any can appear to be, it trumps the visuals through the literary manner in which substance complements aesthetics, its relevancy achieving greater heights.
The Light Ages is a frame story, foremost. It opens with a Guildmaster walking the gloomy backstreets of London, seeking a changeling child. Finding her in a makeshift home alongside the Thames, the girl taunts the man before asking to hear his life story. Robert Morrow the Guildmaster’s name, he begins with his childhood in northern England in a mining town. Aether pumped from the ground in vast quantities, he is being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps, a minor guildsman of the tool workers which utilize the industry-changing substance. His mother not in the healthiest of conditions, she nevertheless has the energy to take young Morrow on her social visits, one of which includes a trip to the countryside to visit a woman who may or may not be a changeling. His mother’s condition deteriorating rapidly thereafter, Morrow soon finds himself faced with the realities of his future in the present, and, in a calculated decision, decides to change it all. From street urchin in London to printer’s assistant, child confidante to a Guildmaster, debt collector to revolutionary, Morrow gets what he wants, but not in the fashion his young mind imagined in a world turned upside down by the powerful aether.
Stated simply, The Light Ages is gorgeously written. The whole text suitable, I struggled to find an exemplary quote, but settled on an early paragraph as Morrow searches the byways of London for the changeling girl.
What waits ahead of me, distant from everything but this river, is a foul isthmus. Sounds are different here, and the gulls remain oddly silent as they bob and rise. Here, it would be said in a forever unwritten history, edged against the wastetips and outflows, shadowed with cuckoo-plant ivy, scratched against the sky, are the remains of the unfinished railway bridge which attempted to stride across the Thames from Ropewalk Reach in another Age. The bridge still rises from the city's rubbish in a tumbled crown. It fails only where the second span buckles beneath the river, waving its girders like a drowning insect. I move within the shadows of its ribs, clambering over slippery horns of embedded concrete and guild-scrolled bearing-sleeves of greenish brass. Here, rusted and barnacled but still faintly glowing with aethered purpose, is the crest of a maker's plate. And a sea-diver's glove.
A textbook example, the entirety of The Light Ages shows not tells. Nostalgia and melancholy woven into every word, it exudes a sense of atmosphere, of being somewhere in fictional history, of feeling what the characters feel, of seeing what they see, of possessing import despite the surface simplicity... I could go on gushing, but will stop.
As mentioned in the intro, The Light Ages is a core steampunk text. Whether it ever intended to be is unimportant. Aether, its usage in commerce and industry, and the manner in which society and politics are affected virtually defines the sub-genre. A subtle mix of magic and technology, it propels Victorian England to a higher level of the Industrial Age, as well as the pages of steampunk history.
With aether, England prospers, the guilds flourish, the shift sirens chant, the chimneys plume, the wealthy live lives of almost inconceivable profligacy and the rest of us struggle and squabble and labour for the crumbs which remain. Even lands beyond our own, caught within their own wyreglowing tendrils of aether and ridiculous myths of discovery by some other grandmaster than ours, smoke and hammer to dreams of guilded industry whilst the savage lands remain forever unexplored. With aether, this world turns on the slow dark eddies of Ages beyond conflict and war. Without it – but the very thought was impossible.
But there is more to The Light Ages than steampunk and the associated commentary on an industrialized society; there is also an element of faery. Never presented in high fantasy terms, the changelings are manifested as human but with auras and distinguishing differences in character to those who know how to look. Morrow falling in love with a changeling girl and her steward in the early going, their encounters throughout the remainder of the story prove pivotal to Macleod’s agenda, all the while adding a subtly colored facet to the story.
In the end, The Light Ages is a brilliant book that should survive the exigencies of genre time. Macleod writes a highly engaging tale with the tropes of steampunk, yet focuses the agenda on the socio-politcal aspects of Britain’s age of industry. The streets of London, the countryside, and the living conditions are described in beautiful flowing prose, and is surpassed only by the superb presentation of theme through character. An extremely well-rounded book from a literary perspective, its visual qualities only propel it higher in the ranks of fantasy in the 21 st century. Get it. Read it. Charles Dickens and Keith Roberts could never have been prouder.