Tuesday 16 December 2008

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod

Don’t read this book if you’re not in the mood for re-evaluating your life. As Roushana Maitland looks back upon her hundred years on planet Earth, the reader can’t help but do something very similar. It’s a reflective, thoughtful and poetic book, but that doesn’t stop it being upsetting and rather depressing!

This didn’t really need to be a science fiction novel, though the same could of course said for many works in the genre. The core of it – the very literary biography of a violinist – could just have easily have been a 19th century novel by Stendhal, or a 20th century one by Moorcock. Where the Between the Wars quartet is set against the turmoil of the 20th century, Song of Time takes us through the equally epochal events of the century to come.

But though it didn’t need to be a science fiction novel, it is a very good one. There are many very interesting science fictional ideas in here, in particular with regard to post-death existence; just don’t expect raygun fights. Many traditional science fiction novels are about people taking on a rotten society and changing it; this one is more about the way people get on with life despite the way things change. It’s a very different kind of science fiction novel, but it’s a welcome departure.

The early sections are reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock in their portrayal of a adolescent girl’s rather inappropriate love. They set the scene for Roushana’s interest in music, and lay out the themes that will dominate the book: love, death, music, empathy. After the great love of her life dies, empathy will be Roushana’s weak spot, while it will become her mother’s great strength.

The description of these formative years is careful, detailed and highly emotional, but the author judges his book (or his readers) well. Just as the reader begins to wonder if it will be this maudlin and introspective all the way through (not that that would necessarily have been a bad thing), he unleashes an apocalypse to shake things up, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Unsurprisingly things get even more depressing for a while after that. The ramifications extend all the way to my own front door, as fighting breaks out in Handsworth and troops are sent in. Then there is a heartbreaking visit to a devastated India, in particular to the bombed city of Ahmedabad, now home to the untouchables, who have found a strange freedom amidst the radiation.

But things become rather more upbeat when the scene moves to Paris, in the grip of a new renaissance. There we meet Claude, a brilliant pianist and conductor who brings both the novel and its frosty lead character to life. Roushana moves out of herself and engages with wider worlds of art and politics, bringing dynamism and vigour to the novel just when it threatened to slow down to a miserable crawl. Roushana and the reader are whirled through Paris, to America and then back to England for a conclusion of high melodrama.

Song of Time is a very different kind of science fiction novel, and one that won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a superb book. It is very ambitious, but it fulfills those ambitions. For example, writing about music is notoriously difficult, but MacLeod does a marvellous job of it here – crucial since his lead is a violinist. He covers the sweep of history impressively, but not intrusively; Roushana isn’t shoe-horned into events. Most interesting is the novel’s clear-eyed but sensitive attitude to death. What would it mean for us if it was avoidable? Would that be a good thing? Are stories with endings inherently better than those that go on for ever? MacLeod doesn’t force the reader into agreeing with his answers, but he makes his character’s final decision entirely believable.

Song of Time, Ian R. MacLeod, PS Publishing, hb, 302pp.

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