Ian Macleod is, point blank, one of the best sf&f writers in the field today. Each piece, from short story to novel, comes fully considered, polished til shining, imaginative, multi-layered, and persistently focused on humanity—no matter how wild the speculation may get. So why haven’t you read him? Macleod’s 2004 collection Breathmoss and Other Exhalations is an excellent palette of stories to dig into. Perfectly representative of the author’s range and talent, there may be no better starting place.
Breathmoss and Other Exhalations opens with its title story. We meet Jalili as a young girl in the midst of a major family move from the sparsely populated highlands to its more dense coastal lowlands of the planet Hebara. The move tough, Jalili nevertheless sees and experiences things she’d never dreamed—rocket ships take off, new cultures and peoples, and, as is strange in her all-female family, men. “Breathmoss” a touching coming-of-age story that eschews most any paint-by-the-numbers idea the reader could throw at such a story type, tragedy and comedy are only stepping stones to Jalili’s self-realization. (For extended review, see here.)
“Verglas” opens on a macabre scene of a lone man on a barren planet burying his wife and children. His wife and children having moved beyond humanity, their bodies represent memories he has a tenuous relationship with. Dealing with the issue, he embarks on great climbing quests in the nearby mountains, and ultimately finds what he was looking for. But peace comes in different forms. Building reader interest through the slow unveiling of setting, what appears surreal at the beginning is let onto one tempting post-human detail at a time. Another way of describing the story might be: if Theodore Sturgeon met Iain Banks.
One of Macleod’s most famous shorts, it is, rightfully, also one of his best. “The Chop Girl” captures a narrative voice and doesn’t let go, telling of the exact opposite of a rabbit’s foot: a British WWII woman who seems to be the downfall of every pilot and airman on r&r she comes in contact with. Meeting her match in a lucky pilot named Walt Williams (no relation to the poet, seemingly), the fate of the meta-physical world is tested in the aftermath of their meeting.
Tribute, homage, flight of muse—however you want to label it, “The Noonday Pool” is a fantastical vision of a day late in the life of British composer Edward Elgar (indirectly known everywhere in the US for “Pomp and Circumstance”). Possessing the subtle essence of wildwood faery, it finds a new dawn for the ageing composer.
“New Light on the Drake Equation” is the story of astrophysicist, mathematician, and drunkard Tom Kelly. Isolating himself in the French Alps with a massive homemade radio antennae, he spends his days bottle in hand, waiting for the universe to communicate. A surprise visit, however, is what changes his world. With an occasional reference to sci-fi of old, Macleod fully humanizes the search for extra-terrestrial life—a paradox needing to be read to be believed. Not only one of the best stories in this collection, it is one of the best of the author’s career. (For extended review, see here.)
A beautifully bittersweet tale of a woman trapped in an institution unlike the world has ever seen, “Isabel of the Fall” describes the fate of Isabel the dawn singer in the mirrored cathedral and the destiny that follows upon her auspicious meeting of Genya the dancing librarian. Heartbreaking in mood and outcome, this is a story that can be re-read for value.
Closing the collection is Macleod’s foray into alternate history. “The Summer Isles” is the story of Griffin Brooke, a man diagnosed in the early going with terminal cancer. Flashing to moments in Brooke’s past as well as present, the new context of his life serves to shake him from the tree of self-pity he’d been clinging so tightly to. Later expanded into the novel of the same name, Macleod’s examination of pre-WWII Britain under a fascist regime also looks into whether we make history, or vice versa, and makes a solid, solid note on which to close the collection (For extended review, see here.)
While seven stories may not seem like much bang for the buck, Breathmoss and Other Exhalations is comprised only of novelettes and novellas. But its real value may be in the tremendous range displayed. From setting to premise, mode to genre, Macleod shifts effortlessly between alternate history and planetary coming-of-age, realism and fabulism, faery and Fermi, creating the impression that the reader has wandered more than one hall in the mind of one of the most thoughtful writers working today.
Published between 1996 and 2002, the following are the seven stories collected in Breathmoss and Other Exhalations.
The Chop Girl (1999)
The Noonday Pool (1995)
New Light on the Drake Equation (2001)
Isabel of the Fall (2001)
The Summer Isles (1998)