Ian R Macleod

Song of Time

an appreciation by Helena Bowles

It is getting hard to find new superlatives for Ian's writing. What is fascinating – and impressive - is his ability to find a new voice and a new tone for every novel. The Light Ages is melancholy, House of Storms is powerful, The Summer Isles is fussy and stuffy and Song of Time is nostalgic. That's interesting in itself as the novel is nostalgic for a future that, for us, has yet to happen. Song is about memory, belief, truth, life, and, that old chestnut, what it means to be human. As with many of MacLeod's books it poses questions rather than attempting to answer them although arguments about the ideas are subtly threaded through the protagonist's memories of her life.
The protagonist is Roushana Maitland, a world class concert violinist who is old and ill. She is dying but, in the world of Song, death truly may merely be a transition to another state, in this case the uploading of your personality into the digital matrix that seems to be the future form of the Internet. Roushana is in the later stages of preparation for this transition. She has been injected with a type of crystal that will record her memories and personality. She merely has to spend some time remembering in order to "record" as many of her experiences as she wishes – and here's the rub for the memories chosen and the experiences recorded are to be the ones that Roushana considers make up the core of what she is. While Roushana is not deliberately planning to falsify her personality, the faults with this concept are slowly made clear to the reader culminating in the episode when we experience Roushana's memory of her clinic appointment:

"But you can't bring back everything, can you? And how can I ever be sure that the way I think things happened was how they really did?"
"Ah – the fallacy of truth! Of course there can be no such thing as certain knowledge. We all have our own illusions, delusions, about the past. Some things are bound to be painful, perhaps so painful that you really have no wish to revisit them. But you shouldn't worry. This isn't supposed to be some impersonal history – it's the reflection of your true nature which counts."

To become the unreliable narrator of your own life is a strange temptation. Many of us would choose to wipe away painful memories and yet surely those memories as much as the happy ones contribute to our core personality? Roushana locks herself away in the semi sentience of her house, Morryn, to sift through the debris of her life, to allow it to trigger the reliving of memories aided by her crystalline invader. Every so often she takes walks on the beach and it is here that the transition process is interrupted.
She finds a near drowned young man on the beach. She struggles home with him, cares for him and discovers, in counterpoint to her own current concerns, he has no personal memories of any kind She names him "Adam". He bears the marks of being scourged, bound at wrists and ankles, beaten and finally a deep cut below the ribs on his left side. The religious symbolism seems obvious but as with much of MacLeod's work the interpretation remains elusive for, as Roushana later comments, wasn't Christ's wound on the other side, anyway?
Adam is a complex figure. He acts as a receptacle for Roushana's memories which, aided by the crystal, come thicker and faster. He is a reminder of Roushana's physical humanity. He is Abaddon, the angel of destruction, but what he has come to destroy is unclear. He is the anti-christ but doesn't seem evil although his John the Baptist figure, Christos, an itinerant water seller peddling fundamentalist Last Days prophecy as well as bottled water, is certainly sinister. His presence makes Roushana a more honest narrator. He even stands as a physical proxy for Roushana's lost brother, Leo, who died in his teens.
Leo was the centre of Roushana's young life. Gifted musically – more so than herself – he was her inspiration and her hero. The first memories we experience are sun soaked episodes from their childhood in a Birmingham recognisable to any of us who live here. Their family is happily mixed-race, father, Irish and mother, Indian. Roushana's childhood is all our childhoods even if the images evoked in my mind were of the kind of childhood experienced during the sixties and seventies, rather than the childhood my own children are currently living, let alone the childhood of future years. It doesn't matter as the important point is the clash between those idealised nostalgic memories and the colder more high tech vision of a further future. Macleod is evoking the universality of childhood experience and Roushana enjoys the rites of passage of all adolescents. Her childhood is filled with music as, with true hero-worshipping zeal, she tries to keep up with her genius older brother. This is nostalgia for a world too soon lost as Leo becomes infected with an artificial plague designed to induce massive food intolerances in Caucasian people. Leo struggles and then, in a choice reflecting the choice facing Roushana, opts to end his pain. It is at this point that the sunny existence of childhood ends and we see the darkness of the world.
Roushana continues to work at her music, still in tribute to Leo whom she seems not only to have hero-worshipped but to have been slightly in love with. This is the event that will colour the rest of her life. Through her personal reminiscences we get glimpses of earthshaking world events. Her connections with India mean that the India/Pakistan nuclear exchange affects her profoundly but other events, for instance the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone Park, we see only in passing.
MacLeod's evocation of the future is done with an amazingly skilful and light touch. Some authors would have spent pages describing the infiltration of the world by the crystal that makes up the digital matrix. MacLeod gives us the bare minimum as Roushana notices things in passing: the slightly enhanced sparkle of wet steps where the crystal has grown or encountering the "ghosts" of tourists using the crystal matrix to explore. It's a clearly a fully imagined world even if what gets onto the page is only the iceberg's tip. There are hints and sketches of future technology and society – the sentient house, the ubiquitous crystal, totalitarian style control of the citizenry and the need for concrete ID – Adam cannot leave Morryn because he may be picked up and questioned, hiding his presence from automatic vehicles that visit the house as taxis for Roushana, the growth of fundamentalism and the existence of digital personalities within the crystal matrix whom Roushana has the opportunity to join.
Roushana grows up, leaves home and begins carving a name for herself as a soloist. Her young adulthood is spent in Paris which has become, once more, kind of artistic melting pot. It is decadent and exciting. Roushana drops into a community of musicians and artists presided over by Harad Le Pape, an ambiguously gendered figure who possesses something of the loucheness of a Coward or a Wilde (although possibly not the talent). There is a fin de siecle air about the Parisian community as art, politics, religion and activism mix in an evocation of the spirit of young barely-adulthood. Shambling in the background is Christos, a strangely influential figure, whose disciples sell bottled water and End Times theology. There are several images of people pouring Christos's water over themselves to wash or cool off in the Paris summer heat. Auto baptism via the commercial route. There are hints that Christos theology is the usual fundamentalist mix of anti-equality-for-anyone-not-heterosexual-male-back-to-basics nonsense yet enough people are buying it that he becomes an important figure in the Paris elections. Important enough, indeed, for Roushana, her lover Claude, and the political faction to which they belong to kidnap Christos for the duration of Election Day. He is injured and then disappears although there is no apparent stand in for Salome. Before he dies we discover some of the less pleasant aspects of Roushana's world and the inevitability of the corruption of technology. The first hints of Adam's origins lie in his relation to Christos, his precursor, or forerunner.
This is not a traditional SF future and it is unsurprising that the old SF vision of the future is placed in Leo's mouth:

"How Mars would cease to hang red in the sky and turn verdant green, and Venus would shift from white to oceanic blue. Soon, long steel ships will dart from existence to existence, probability to probability, world to wondrous world."

As Leo dies, so does this vision as a viable future. The new vision is one where humans are physically bound to the earth but have the opportunity of entering a form of existence free of physical form and this is one of the major themes of the novel. Roushana's memories are ripe with the sheer physicality of being human. Her current existence is filled with the weakness and failing of the body; her memories are of a body that is strong and vital. Everything has a vivid sensory existence and the emphasis remains relentlessly physical, almost animal at times. Roushana is shown to have experienced the full gamut of human experience and existence. She has lost loved ones, particularly her beloved Leo, experienced grief and passion. She has aborted a child and borne two children. She has had a physically fulfilling relationship with her husband and experimented with an emotionless act of adultery. She has tried same sex experiences. She has lived intensely and our discovery of the final memory she has been hiding from is a disturbing reminder that not all animality/physicality/humanity is a good or positive thing.
The question, therefore, is whether Roushana should abandon that passionate physical humanity or free herself from the increasing demands of her aging body and join the strange voluntary rapture of souls caught up into the crystal paradise. The presence of Adam seems to argue for the physical. That, however, means the final physical experience of death. The discovery of Adam's origins are a strong argument in favour of allowing death to take us naturally and of the horrors inherent in rejecting death.
This novel is classic MacLeod: lyrical, evocative, atmospheric and emotional. The elusive nature of the plot and the lack of any attempt to provide concrete answers allows the reader to inhabit the gaps making MacLeod's works resonate on a very personal level. This is some of the finest, most lyrical writing within the SF&F genre and also some of the most adult.
This is the point at which Science Fiction left adolescence behind and grew up.

© 2017 Ian R. Macleod
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