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The House of Storms
Ian R. MacLeod
Simon & Schuster, 457 pages

The House of Storms
Ian R. MacLeod
Ian R. MacLeod was born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the West Midlands in 1956. He decided to study law and to attend Birmingham Polytechnic. After various jobs, he ended up working in the Civil Service. When his wife Gillian became pregnant in 1990, he thought the idea of being a full-time house-husband and writer was a worthy one. His first sale, "1/72nd Scale," was nominated for the Nebula Award for the year's best novella. Other stories have appeared in the Year's Best SF and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. His first novel, The Great Wheel, won the Locus Award for the Year's Best First novel and his second, an alternative history story titled The Summer Isles, won the World Fantasy Award as a novella. He now teaches English and creative writing part-time.

Ian R. MacLeod Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
SF Site Interview: Ian R. MacLeod
SF Site Review: The Light Ages

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The dumbed-down Sunday School version of the Biblical story of The Fall is that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate an apple (more accurately translated as "fruit") from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they realized they were naked and covered up their private parts, by which action God knew that his edict had been violated. The shame that the first couple feel about their naked state is taken as an allegory for copulation, Eve (and by implication all of womankind) is characterized as a temptress for seducing Adam, and sex is the original sin that gets not only them, but all of humanity banished from paradise.

A more sophisticated theological interpretation holds that by eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve gained knowledge equivalent to that of God's. The attempt to become like God (i.e. to learn how the universe works) is what causes human suffering. Or, as my mother used to put it, you can be too smart for your own good.

It's perhaps not coincidental that the famous apocryphal story of how Sir Isaac Newton "discovered" gravity features a falling apple. The more humanity learns about physical principles (like, say, how to cause a nuclear reaction) the more trouble it gets itself into. One such troublemaker was Charles Darwin, whose big bite of the apple even today causes controversy in Kansas public schools. A wish to return to the garden is a wish for willful ignorance, and therein lies much of modern turmoil. Because you really can't go home again.

The myth of creation, and the resulting tensions between faith and science, is at the center of the hurricane in Ian R. MacLeod's The House of Storms. Set a hundred years hence in the same milieu of MacLeod's earlier The Light Ages with a different set of characters (and which does not require familiarity with the earlier novel), The House of Storms is a nuanced retelling of the Fall from social, psychological and mythical perspectives in which God screws up as much as any human.

The discovery of the alchemical substance aether has ushered in an alternate Industrial Revolution based on magic rather than steam power; the "Age" that follows the events of the previous novel is a sort of late Victorian period in which Victrola phonographs exist not at all incongruously side-by-side with telephone systems capable of video transmission. (Why exactly magic can soup up real technologies of the time such as the telephone but can't provide 7.1 surround sound is besides the point; like much of the so-called steampunk genre that superimposes 21st century concepts on earlier industrial developments, the contradictory juxtaposition provides a charming mood, regardless of the logic.) England is run by an oligarchy of various guilds, chief amongst which is the Telegrapher's Guild (control of information is power even in magical times). Alice Meynell, a former prostitute and successful social climber who has risen to Greatgrandmistress of the Telegrapher's Guild through the arts of marriage and magic is caring for her dying son, Ralph.

While for some reason Alice can perform magic to alter her appearance and kill off those who stand in her way, she can't save her son from a consumptive disease. Thus comes the classic bargain with the devil (though Alice herself has satanic predilections), in which the offspring of an ill-fated couple must suffer. Though, in MacLeod's version, with slightly happier results.

The book is divided into two parts, before and after the fall. The first concerns Ralph's seemingly miraculous recuperation and, not coincidentally, love affair with a fisherman's daughter, Marion Price. That the followers of Jesus were known as the "fishers of men" and the symbol of early Christians a fish (an outline of which appears frequently on car bumpers to indicate the faith of the occupants, and which is satirized by those who do not share that same faith by placing the word "Darwin" within the fish outline) is surely not coincidental. His return to health enables Ralph to more vigorously pursue his study of natural science, and what he believes is a new theory of "Habitual Adaptation." He and Marion set off to escape his mother and his pending adult responsibilities as a member of the ruling class, ostensibly to leave England and travel to the Fortunate Isles to prove his theories. But, as many an adolescent learns in the passage to adulthood, Ralph discovers that his insights are not all that original. It turns out that the publication of evolutionary theory is suppressed in the interests of the common welfare:

...our study of how the natural world functions must reflect the real needs of human society. A hothead, for example, might use your theory to argue that we humans are descended from apes. And where would that leave the unique concept of the sacred human soul, and out beloved church, and people's dearly held beliefs?
Additional disasters engineered by his mother ensue, sundering not only Ralph and Marion, but plunging England into a bloody civil war. This first revelation about suppressed truth foreshadows others that don't come about until the war's conclusion. Ralph and Marion find themselves on opposite sides of the war -- having assumed his hereditary post as head of the Telegrapher's Guild, Ralph is general of the armies of the East, while Marion's legendary skills as a nurse have made her a Florence Nightingale figure that inspires the rebellious Western armies of the lower classes. The two come together one last time, along with Alice, to end the war and usher a new Age for England, albeit one consistent with the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Indeed, it is not the new Age that Alice had ruthlessly plotted to achieve for herself and for England. Alice should not be mistaken as simply the "baddie" of the tale, devoid of human empathy except as it affects her son. Here is the central conceit, for God so loved his only son that he sacrificed him. Alice is a stand-in for God, specifically the God of the Old Testament who without seeming remorse unleashes floods and locusts, turns people to pillars of salt, and directs the slaughter of those he has not chosen (a behavior of godhead which is not, by the way, unique to Western tradition), all of which is fine because it fits into God's plan for the universe, justified because God alone has the long-view. But as Biblical commentators such as Jack Miles have noted, the plan doesn't work out as intended (which is odd if God is an all-knowing omniscience), thus requiring a new covenant that provides the underpinnings of the New Testament. Similarly, Alice's sociopathological actions in which a great deal of innocent people suffer is not simply the result of egomaniacal evil (though, if you think about it, a god who insists on being worshipped certainly had egomaniacal tendencies), but is how someone possessed of superior knowledge attempts to steer creation on a better course. Of course, a good deal of evil is committed in serving the cause of the greater good.

That Alice ultimately fails, and ultimately deserves some sympathy, resonates on multiple theological/philosophical levels that I've only begun to touch upon. Suffice it to say, there is a redemption of sorts, but, in keeping with this seeming fantasy's actual science fictional backbone, it's a different kind of truth that sets the key characters free, and the gaining of knowledge that, while not a return to paradise, nevertheless results in enlightenment.

Copyright © 2005 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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