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Breathmoss and Other Exhalations
Ian R. MacLeod
Golden Gryphon Press, 310 pages

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

"Fiction, at its heart, is about telling stories, and stories, in their essences, are interesting lies." So begins Ian R. MacLeod in "Big Lies," his self-penned introduction to Breathmoss and Other Exhalations. "Stories, in their big or small lies, promise to make a better fist of cause and effect, happiness and sadness, love, hate, redemption, and all the other things we fear and crave, than we often experience in our own lives…. The best stories, the ones I strive to tell, are stories that make us think, stories which surprise us not because they're showing us something new, but because they're revealing, though a lie's tilted mirror, something we suddenly realize with that lovely rush of recognition we've known all along."

MacLeod starts with one of the biggest 'lies' of the book in his first selection, a novella he calls "Breathmoss." He sets this story on a fantasy world that implants spores called Breathmoss into the lungs of its young so that they can breath in the environment. The world is predominantly female, with only two males hanging around the coast at the beginning of the story. The author does not take full advantage of his matriarchy in that he does not show how a predominantly female world would be necessarily different from a predominantly male world. While his point is that there is no difference, that hardly makes for interesting writing. Author Melanie Rawn hit the same snag in her Exiles series.

Macleod tells a singularly visual tale. "The breathmoss, too, had turned russet-gold. Leaning close to it beneath this tranquil sky, which was composed of a blue so pale it was as if the sea had been caught in reflection inside an upturned white bowl, was like looking into the arms of a miniature forest." MacLeod asks the reader to consider both the plant described as well as the sky above, reinforcing the biological function of the breathmoss (i.e. air).

The world of "Breathmoss" is terribly original, a living, breathing space of reality that lacks ornamentation and that holds an internal truth. MacLeod teaches the reader a new language, and many of the words are of his own creation. This new language draws us into the story and as the language is understood more regularly, the characters are perceived in a new way.

A second piece looks at a smaller sort of lie and the possibility of precociously bad luck invading the hyper-superstitious world of WWII bomber pilots. In "The Chop Girl," MacLeod combines a Twilight Zone eeriness with a compelling first person voice in the form of a female steward present at the bomber base. MacLeod captures the feeling of imminent death so prevalent among those 'Flying Fortress' pilots who helplessly hung in the air, waiting for a bit of shrapnel or the guns of an enemy aircraft to turn their planes into balls of flame. Wrapped in that inevitably of death, MacLeod shows the value of life and how simple moments of intimacy can have the greatest of impacts.

A third example is a short story set in the near present, but that has a feel of the first of America's short stories. This selection, "The Noonday Pool" shows the struggle of an old man (composer Sir Edgar Elgar) to shed the trappings of his world in order to find that one true moment of creation in nature. This story resonates like a Hawthorne short story, with its presentation of the natural world and man's odd ambivalence to that world. This story shows no judgments of good and evil. Rather the story presents a meditation on the way life progresses toward death and how that death looks a lot like a quiet moment next to a beautiful lake. That lake can show the inner being of a man, even when that inner self is not a pretty thing to see.

MacLeod's reverence to good writing transcends the word 'genre.' While that word in relation to fantasy and science fiction denotes certain technical strengths (characterization and plot), it can also denote weaknesses (theme and style). By ignoring the limits of the genre, MacLeod goes past that genre and creates something special.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.

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