Introduction to Tendeléo's Story by Robert Silverberg. Originally appeared in Tendeléo's Story ( PS Publishing , 2000), pages 5-9. Copyright © 2000 by Agberg Ltd. Reprinted with permission.


Heäs a brilliant writer who has produced some of the finest science fiction of the last dozen years. His inventive and challenging books and stories, pulsating with vivid imagery and superb verbal energy, carry tremendous emotional impact, and have given me much pleasure during that period. How inexcusable, then, for me to have kept mixing him again and again for much of that time into a sort of generic Celtic stew, conflating him with a couple of ither Ian Macs who have also done much work worthy of praise. Silly careless me!

I can keep Kim Stanley and Spider Robinson straight in my head; I have never had the slightest difficulty distinguishing among Robert Heinlein, Robert Sheckley, Robert Sawyer, and Robert Silverberg; I can tell Ray Bradbury from Ray Cummings and William Burroughs from Edgar Rice ditto. Even so, I've had all sorts of trouble with the various Ians.

But mixing them up is a mistake I'll never make again.

The problem is partly that I'm not paying as much attention to things science-fictional as I once did, and partly that the science-fiction universe has grown so huge that it's a formidable task to keep track of everything.

There was a time when I knew just about every active science-fiction writer in the business. I have, after all, been close to the center of the science-fiction world for nearly fifty years as a writer, editor, and anthologist, which has involved me in business dealings with almost everyone in the field, and, since I attend two or three science-fiction conventions a year, I've come to know most of my colleagues personally E. E. Smith and Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and Sprague de Camp, James Gunn and Algis Budrys and Frederik Pohl, John Brunner and Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny, and so on down through the SF generations to Joe Haldeman, Connie Willis, Greg Bear, and other star writers of the modern era.

But today's science-fiction world is an immensely populous place, and I'm no longer doing much editing or anthologizing, and I'm beginning not to feel quite as closely in touch with the center of things as I once was.

When I enter a room full of science-fiction writers as a convention these days, I'm likely to recognize about one face out of five, whereas a couple of decades ago I'd have known just about everyone. And when I look at the contents page of some recent science-fiction magazine, most of the names are unfamiliar to me, and I have no idea what to expect from their work. Which is why was guilty of such numbskull inattentiveness in regard to the work of that extraordinary writer, Ian McDonald. It was mainly a matter of being much too casual about bylines.

Ian McDonald is a British writer - he was born in Manchester in 1960, grew up in Northern Ireland, lives now in Belfast - whose work started appearing in the early 1980s in magazines like Interzone and Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, and very quickly began to be reprinted in the annual Best SF of the Year anthologies. But there also happens to be a fine British writer of about the same age named Ian R. MacLeod, whose stories have appeared regularly in Interzone and Asimov's, and quickly began to be reprinted in the annual Best SF of the Year anthologies. And then there's Ian McDowell, yet another new writer of the 1980s, who -

Well, it was too many Ian Macs for the latter-day me, and I tangled them all up. Gradually it dawned on me that these guys were three different writers, and that one of them (McDowell) was an American. That helped me sort him out of the mix. McDonald and MacLeod remained hopelessly intertwined in my mind for a long time, since they were both British, published their excellent stories in the same places, and almost invariably torned up in the Best of the Year collections.

What finally helped me get a fix on things was a reading of a book called Necroville - by Ian McDonald - that revisited in a dazzling way a theme that I had dealt with in a story of my own, "Born With the Dead", about a quarter of a century ago.

After just a few pages, I sat up and took notice, even unto the author's name. My story had dealt with the development of a technique for the revival of the dead, and the withdrawal of the resuscitatees into an insular culture of their own. Necroville made use of essentially the same subject, but handled it in a breathtakingly contemporary way, demonstrating (with considerable stylistic virtuosity and an expert use of the vocabulatory of nanotechnology) the difference between a cutting-edge story of 1974 vintage and one writtin in the 1990s.

I was tremendously impressed, and from that time on I have had no difficulty remembering which Ian is which. When I met Ian McDonald at a party held in a botanical garden during the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, I told him how much I had admired Necroville, and he reacted as though he was its actual author, so I'm quite sure I was speaking with Ian McDonald, not with Ian MacLeod.

And since then I've kept them clear in my mind.

One thing that helps is that MacLeod, though he's had one novel published, works primarily in shorted lengths. He works so well in those lengths that in 1990 he appeared in three different Best of the Year collections with three different stories, a trick that had previously been turned only by, well, Robert Silverberg. And his superb novella, "The Summer Isles", was among the finalists for the Hugo Award in 1999.

Whereas McDonald - it was you with whom I talked at that botanical-garden party, wasn't it? - is a prolific novelist, though he has done a great many splendid short stories too, enough of them so that two collected volumed have been published so far. And it is Ian McDonald - not Ian MacLeod, nor Ian McDowell, nor Ian Watson, nor Ian Wallace, nor anyone else but Ian McDonald - who has written those beautiful and eerie stories of alien invasion that we can call, by now, the Chaga series.

There. If I ever confuse any of these guys again, I need only refer to this very essay on Ian McDonald, written by my very own self, to get it all straight again.

McDonald's career got going quickly: in 1985 he was a nominee for the John W. Campbell Award, which honors outstanding new writers, and four years later his book Desolation Road brought him the Locus Best First Novel Award. He followed it with a string of critically acclaimed books, among them Out on Blue Six, King of Morning, Queen of Day (Philip K. Dick Award, 1992), Sacrifice of Fools, and others, and the two story collections, Empire Dreams and Speaking in Tongues.

The Chaga sequence began with the novelette "Toward Kilimanjaro" (1990), which McDonald expanded into the 1995 novel Chaga, published in the United States as Evolution's Shore. He followed that in 1998 with a sequel, Kirinya. Now, in the present novella "Tendeléo's Story", he has returned to the Chaga material from a new perspective - two new perspectives, actually. It would seem, therefore, that he plans to examine the implications of this strange and beautiful alien intrusion into the African continent from a number of different angles in the years ahead, perhaps with a group of short novels like this one, which will eventually aggregate into a new book.

These Chaga stories are marked by powerful insight into character, by a convincing depiction of near-future African geopolitics, and in particular by rich, striking imagery that has its roots, I suspect, in J. G. Ballard's classic novel of three decades ago, The Crystal World. The Chaga stories remind me also of Ballard's "Vermilion Sands" stories in the way they return repeatedly to a single vividly imagined background but approach it from a different point of view in each visit. I find echoes of Clarke's Childhood's End and 2001 in them as well, and perhaps a hearkening back to John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes.

But this kinship with great science fiction of the past is a virtue, not a defect, of McDonald's work. He is anything but a derivative writer.

There is not one of us, from Heinlein to Asimov and on down, who has not drawn on the established body of science fiction in his own work, calling upon a range of concepts pioneered by others and in general deriving ulitmately from that astonishing fountainhead of the whole genre, H. G. Wells. What matters, as Heinlein and Asimov showed us in their different ways, and Ian McDonald has been showing us lately, is not where one gets one's ideas, but what one does with them, and what Ian McDonald seems to be doing is reinventing for the new century a whole host of existing science-fictional concepts, transforming them through the power of his prose and the intensity of his visions just as the mysterious Chaga invaders have transformed the Africa of his stories.

He leaves us much the richer for his efforts.

Robert Silverberg
May 2000

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