Saturday, September 12, 2020

Review of Empire Dreams by Ian McDonald

In this reviewer's humble opinion, Ian McDonald has quietly crept his way into the top ten—or at least twenty (I'd have to sit down and take a look)—writers of science fiction of all time. The breadth of styles he has successfully put onto the page, the spread of truly unique ideas (predominantly in the first twenty years), the sustained success, and above all the ability to integrate a fully human agenda with sensawunda, when a reader picks up a McDonald story they know that it will be well written, colorfully imaginative, and contain wholly relevant aspects of life and society. Empire Dreams (1988), McDonald's first collection, highlights everything he would become.

The collection's title story tells of a young man battling a terminal illness with the latest technology: video games. His family also having experienced a tragedy, McDonald paints a picture wherein technology eases the soul, and while the most overt conception in the collection, nevertheless touches the reader's sentiment. In an almost effortless piece of engaging worldbuilding, “Scenes from a Shadowplay” conjures a steampunk-ish, horror-ish, Venetian-ish world in a matter of sentences. Regal without the standard adornments, horrorific without the stereotypical entrapments, it tells of a rich composer who wants revenge on a rival in a style highly reminiscent of Tanith Lee—a superb compliment.

Stories written in the second-person today not as rare as it was thirty years ago, meaning “Christian” was something relatively unique for its time. About a boy who encounters a strange man flying strange kites, the flying lesson he receives likewise leads to a strange backstory with broader implications. I'm not sure how successful the second-person perspective is, however, the story does not lack for it. Later spawning a novel of the same name, “King of Morning, Queen of Day” is chock full of ideas that marry H.G. Wells-esque science fiction with high fantasy, but ultimately is about a father-daughter relationship, and the resulting difference in perspectives and values. An extremely unique story told largely in epistolary form, I doubt the reader has encountered anything like it previously. The movement through various viewpoints via correspondence and notes is a highly effective means of untwining this particular story, but also at always keeping the story’s ”reality” just beyond the fingertips. 

What I would guess is one of the formative ideas for McDonald's first novel, Desolation Road, the short story “Catherine Wheel (Our Lady of Tharsis)” has a fascinatingly transformative ending. Set on Mars and Earth, it tells of a boy accompanying his grandfather on the last voyage of a train across the arid Martian landscape and a young Saint Catherine on Earth trying to transcend reality. The intersection of these two arcs is (science fictionally) amazing. A mini-biography, “Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh” is a story which takes real history and inserts a touch of the fantastik into the unknown bits. In this case, it's a short, sharp look at the life of van Gogh and the “demon” (emphasis on quotation marks) which was any number of inspirations.

A story that could have done with a bit more atmosphere to complement the setting, “The Island of the Dead” is about a man looking for his dead wife on Thanos. He does finds a woman, but not what his expectations looked for. A touch more exposition would have allowed mood to complement theme. A story that only feels more fitting in 2020 compared to the 1988 it was originally published, “Marrakech Radio” may be the ultimate “Millennial” story before the stereotype—ahem, word—existed. To describe the story is to spoil it, suffice to say it tells of young people in modern Marrakech, a medical procedure, and the consequences of choice. For some, indeed, the blaze of glory may be better.

A travelogue to fantastical cities with hints of Jack Vance and Italo Calvino, “Visits to Remarkable Cities” is a collection of vignettes in which McDonald distills his observations of our cities and the people who populate them, and the patterns in the things they produce to create a human question/situation—the slash for the reader to discover. Closing the collection on a note similar to the opening story but in different fashion, “Vivaldi” likewise breaks out the heartstrings. Featuring an astrophysicist, the story is more about his personal life and the interstellar travel he participates in to investigate a black hole. A lot of room for introspection, my only complaint is the clash of writing styles: present tense to classical third person.

Hindsight is 20-20, and with more than thirty years in the rear view mirror, it's high time to recognize Ian McDonald as one of science fiction's greatest writers of all time. As captured in this, his first collection, the variety of styles and interests applied to human interests, from the personal all the way through the social and cultural, is long overdue for overarching recognition. It's rare that readers are able to enjoy a writer emerging from the proverbial womb almost fully fledged, as exemplified by Empire Dreams, able to present such an amazing suite of differentiated, unique ideas and stories, all of which retain their relevance. It may have a few years under it's belt, but it stands the test of time on both feet. Highly recommended.

The following are the ten stories collected in Empire Dreams:

Empire Dreams (Ground Control to Major Tom)

Scenes from a Shadowplay


King of Morning, Queen of Day

The Catharine Wheel (Our Lady of Tharsis)

Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh

The Island of the Dead

Radio Marrakech

Visits to Remarkable Cities


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