Voyages by Starlight is Ian R. MacLeod's first collection. His stories are very well-constructed, and characteristically rather quiet in tone. In this, in some of his themes, and in his ability to plant a subtle bombshell and explode it in the reader's face at a story's close, he reminds me of the excellent mainstream writer William Trevor. SF writers he reminds me of include Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, and perhaps his fellow Ian, McDonald. MacLeod uses SFnal tropes, sometimes quite original ones, primarily as metaphors enhancing the story's themes, or as enabling devices to place his characters in revealing situations. MacLeod has established himself with me as a "must-read" writer. His prose style is balanced and elegant. He is wonderful at evoking landscapes, either beautiful as in "The Perfect Stranger" and "Starship Day", or grotesque, as in "The Giving Mouth". His characters are closely described, and truly alive, although his range of characterizations is somewhat narrow.
My favorite stories here are "The Perfect Stranger" and "Starship Day", which resemble each other a bit in setting (sun-drenched island), and in following a man in early middle age whose marriage is failing, in both cases partly because of guilt about a child. Otherwise the stories are wholly different. "The Perfect Stranger" opens with the protagonist meeting his wife at a lovely vacation island. The catch is, everyone's memories are erased at the start of the vacation, so they don't know each other. Idyllic scenes of the couple in love on the island are alternated with scenes of their harried life prior to the vacation, and our knowledge that their marriage was on the rocks prior to the vacation fills us with foreboding for their future once their memories return. Is it possible to start over again, and not make the same mistakes? (A question MacLeod considers elsewhere as well.) And at what cost came this vacation?
"The news was everywhere. It was in our dreams, it was on TV. Tonight the travelers on the first starship from Earth would awaken." So opens "Starship Day", as the lovely island town of Danous awaits the news from the starship. Owen, the narrator, is a psychiatrist, and rather cynical in his view of the news. He's more concerned with his failing marriage, and his failing relationship with his mistress, and his failure to cure a despondent patient. We follow him through a gorgeous day, and a sumptuous "starship party", until the transmission from the ship is revealed. A final twist gives the whole setting and story a sharply drawn meaning. A wonderful story.
Most of the rest of the stories are nearly as good. MacLeod explores gender roles, time travel, the troubles in Northern Ireland, aging, growing up, in very original ways. His settings include the "industrial" fantasy world of "The Giving Mouth", isolated Greenland during World War II in "Tirkiluk", an utopian future in "Papa". This is truly an outstanding collection of stories, stories that reward read beautifully the first time and reward rereading.