No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, April 18, 2009

#27: Song of Time -- Ian MacLeod

The music writes itself long before it gets to this stage. It doesn’t care about me and what I am—it just comes out of me—so why should I care about it? ... Listen. See the way the emphasis has changed on the horns even since the rehearsal this morning? And the whole movement would be different if we were to start it again. It’s changing at a huge rate. The bloody thing’s alive, Roushana. People say that, but they don’t understand what it means. It doesn’t need us now, and it doesn’t even need Claude’s performance. It’s simply there. It seeks immortality in its own way.” (p. 200)

Roushana Maitland, virtuoso violinist and widow of the famous and flamboyant conductor Claude Vaudin, is over a hundred years old, alone and dying in a house on the storm-lashed Cornish coast. Walking on the beach one day, she finds the unconscious body of a beautiful, mysterious young man whom she names Adam. Sharing the story of her life, and attempting to unravel Adam's origins, impels Roushana to reorder and re-examine her own memories, to mourn her dead and the world she's lost, and to celebrate the music that's threaded inextricably through that life.

Roushana's memories cover the entire 21st century: she grows up in Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham, in a time we can recognise as no more than a decade from now. Roushana, of Irish/Indian ancestry, watches as her beloved brother Leo falls victim to the 'white plague', a wide-range food intolerance syndrome linked to lactose tolerance. She grows up in a period of massive social change -- nuclear bombs targetting major cities, climate change, segregation -- and loses those dear to her, one by one. As an adult, she becomes a famous violinist (classical music having enjoying something of a renaissance in a world sliding slowly towards apocalypse) and meets the love of her life, Claude. Theirs is a classic love story, and Roushana never stops mourning him.

Roushana's story, and Claude's, are linked and perhaps mirrored in composer arl Nordinger's Fourth Symphony, especially the 'Song of Time' in the third movement. The Song of Time is music that evolves:
Using artificial intelligence software, he’d created scores which evolved of their own volition. The middle section of Swann in Love, for example, which was once pitted with ironic interjections from the woodwind, was now filled with Proustian twilight. (p. 148)

MacLeod writes music, musicians, performance and reception beautifully: that tightrope sense of being possessed by the melody (p. 16) or genius ... is the enemy of perfection. To get it beautifully right, you have to be prepared to get it terribly wrong. (p. 131). Music is as much torment as pleasure for Roushana: a link to her brother, a passionate dialogue with Claude, a way of communicating what can't be said ... On a second read of the novel, I'm increasingly of the opinion that Nordinger's music is more than just soundtrack for this very musical novel. The way that the Song of Time evolves is a metaphor for the way Roushana's tale changes and grows and mellows. And that passage I've quoted at the head of this review shows another side of the story: the desire for and fear of immortality.

For this is science fiction, and Roushana's future (where the outer planets are mined, where climate change has swung crazily back from fire towards ice, where artificial flesh is a staple of a home first-aid box, where a crystalline web permeates every street and house) is a future where the 'passed' still mingle with the living, conversing and attending concerts and exclaiming at tourist-trap Cornish villages. It's done with crystals (or smoke and mirrors, if you prefer: Roushana doesn't care about the science behind it, and we're caught up in her self-centred understanding of the world around her).

Roushana's memory palace, her collection of souvenirs and mementos, is intended to help her re-member herself, to build up a copy of her personality that'll live on after her passing. She's spoken to old friends and acquaintances who've passed:
“And you really think you’re the same person, now?”
“Of course not. But I’m still Blythe—that’s the whole point.” (p. 155)

Roushana is determined not to die, not to join the legion of those who've gone before her. And Adam ... well, when she's worked out who Adam is, perhaps she'll learn something important about herself too.

I love this novel: I love the prose (which is uneven, but at its best utterly ravishing), and the music, and the future -- which is drawn in broad strokes because Roushana is frankly not interested in the details, and doesn't expend energy or narrative on the devastating eruption of Yellowstone, or the bombing of Indian cities, or various other epic disasters (Venice sunk, Kilimanjaro snowless). I don't want this to be the future I live through, but I can find it utterly credible and somewhat survivable -- and yes, there's a kind of happy ending, a sense that eventually things will be better than they are.

I'm also very impressed by the vivid detail which MacLeod, a young male writer, brings to his depiction of an old woman. And I admire the layering, the memories and amendments, the music and the dialogue, the hints that reveal a story Roushana isn't ready to tell until the climax of the novel.

I'm still undecided as to whether the ending supports the weight of the story -- but it does so rather more than I'd realised at first. And now I want to read more MacLeod. (Read this for the 'Not the Clarke Award' panel at Eastercon.) I want more prose like this ...

On summer nights, as baricades went up and the helicopters flickered closer and cars were rolled and the flaming streets of Balsall Heath played orange across thunderous skies, I breathed the acrid smoke of funeral pyres. When the rains raged and the gutters giggled like gargoyles and fish-condoms swam in the streets, my teeth were gritted with the soils of the grave. On broken-glass mornings, exhausted but elated, the taste of dried blood was still on my bitten tongue as I trudged through the blasted world. My bleeding fingers stained the strings of my violin. It had to hurt. (p. 68)


  1. wow. i just heard about this book at a scifi convention and can't wait to read it. thanks for the excellent review.

  2. Marie: thanks for the comment, I really hope you enjoy the book as much as I did! (Which convention were you at?)

  3. I was at Readercon in Boston, Massachusetts this past weekend. One of the critics there said it was one of the best books of 2008 and "literary sf," which made me curious because I don't usually read a lot of sf but I like dystopias and Atwood and Ishiguro. Now I just have to figure out how to get a copy in the US! :-)