Snodgrass and Other Illusions - By Ian R. MacLeod


IT’S NEVER A GOOD idea to look back. The past isn’t just a foreign country—it’s a dangerous territory where it’s all too easy to get lost in might-have-beens and what-ifs. All the more so if you’re a writer. The words you once wrote have a simple appeal that the ones you’re currently working on, or plan to write, generally lack. Old, finished stories are like dear, dead friends. They’re easy to reminisce about and glamourise because they don’t have the unfortunate tendency the living have to behave in awkward and confusing ways. Not because I think my old stories are dead, I hasten to add. But more because I feel that I’ve given them enough shape and consistency to walk away from me and lead a life—small or large—of their own.

So it’s not without a little trepidation that I meet up with these pieces again. I believe they are some of my best work, and I hope also go some way toward demonstrating that the genre most often called “Science Fiction” is actually far broader and wider than most people choose to think—readers and writers included, and all the more so the great majority of both who generally head swiftly in other directions whenever they see the words. What I’ve always set out to do is to tell stories that have the depth of naturalistic fiction, but the breadth and wonder—and also the tighter plotting—more normally associated with genre works. You’ll find very few starships and even fewer aliens in my stories, but plenty of things that really happened in history, or almost did, or might do soon. Many are set in places we’d recognise, and involve people we might meet not far from our homes. There are edges of strangeness, certainly, and mythic twists, and broad horizons. But above all these are stories about the things that matter, be it love or loss, fear or wonder, growing old or being young, told as best as I know how. They spoke to me once, and I hope they speak to you.

It’s a big world out there, and an even bigger universe. Let’s go out and explore…

The Chop Girl

ME, I WAS THE CHOP girl—not that I suppose that anyone knows what that means now. So much blood and water under the bridge I heard the lassies in the Post Office debating how many world wars there had been last week when I climbed up the hill to collect my pension, and who exactly it was that had won them.

Volunteered for service, I did, because I thought it would get me away from the stink of the frying pans at home in our Manchester tea room’s back kitchen. And then the Air Force of all things, and me thinking, lucky, lucky, lucky, because of the glamour and the lads, the lovely lads, the best lads of all, who spoke with BBC voices as I imagined them, and had played rugger and footie for their posh schools and for their posh southern counties. And a lot of it was true, even if I ended up typing in the annex to the cookhouse, ordering mustard and HP on account of my, quote, considerable experience in the catering industry.

So there I was—just eighteen and WRAF and lucky, lucky, lucky. And I still didn’t know what a chop girl was, which had nothing to do with lamb or bacon or the huge blocks of lard I ordered for the chip pans. They were big and empty places, those bomber airfields, and they had the wild and open and windy names of the Fens that surrounded them. Wisbech and Finneston and Witchford. And there were drinks and there were dances and the money was never short because there was never any point in not spending it. Because you never knew, did you? You never knew. One day your bunk’s still warm and the next someone else is complaining about not changing the sheets and the smell of you on it. Those big machines like ugly insects lumbering out in the dying hour to face the salt wind off the marshes and the lights and blue smoke of the paraffin lanterns drifting across the runways. Struggling up into the deepening sky in a mighty roaring, and the rest of us standing earthbound and watching. Word slipping out that tonight it would be Hamburg or Dortmund or Essen—some half-remembered place from a faded schoolroom map glowing out under no moon and through heavy cloud, the heavier the better, as the