The Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod
Published: P.S. Publishing, 2008
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
“A man lies half-drowned on a Cornish beach at dawn in the furthest days of this century. The old woman who discovers him, once a famous concert violinist, is close to death herself... or a new kind of life she can barely contemplate.
Does death still exist at all, or has it finally been obliterated? And who is this strange man she's found? Is he a figure returned from her past, a new messiah, or an empty vessel? Is he God, or the Devil?” ~WWend.com
This is the first book I’ve read by Ian R. MacLeod, which is a shame, because I briefly met him at Loncon 3, before I’d finished the book. It was an e-book, so I suppose I couldn’t have gotten him to sign it anyway, but I would have liked to be able to say something to him about his work.
The Song of Time is not extremely long novel, but the story it told felt sprawling and immersive in a way that I would generally expect from a doorstop of a book. The story is told from the perspective of Roushana Maitland, now an elderly, terminally-ill woman who is recounting the important personal events of her long life, in order to fix all the memories in place for the post-human life she is contemplating. In the process, she is also re-forming her experiences as a story, and making sense of the many changes that have happened to the world and to herself in the past century. The man who washes up on the shore, who she calls Adam (and who calls himself Abaddon), becomes her audience. The quiet, contemplative domestic life of Adam and Roushana gives a nice anchor for delving into Roushana’s tumultuous memories.
Roushana has lived through the end of the world as we know it, and the long apocalypse has a feeling of authenticity. It isn’t any one thing that changes the world, but a variety of disasters and developments over many decades. There are weaponized diseases like WRFI (wide range food intolerance), nuclear war in politically unstable regions, environmental problems and natural disasters. However, the story is focused on Roushana’s life, and how she has navigated these changes in the world. This seemed to me to make the story more personal and human, and much more easily relatable. For instance, Roushana heard about the first nuclear strike from the news on TV, while she was busy doing something else—just as most of my generation in the US first heard of the events of 9/11 from news broadcasts, when I was in high school. It did not feel like Roushana was shoehorned into major events unrealistically, but her life made an excellent lens through which to see her world’s future history.
I think it is impressive that Roushana does not come across to me as passive, despite her inability to affect anything that is happening on a wider scale. She may not be stopping nuclear wars, but she has goals, dreams, and a strength of personality that aids her struggle to find her own path. As a child, she is driven by her adoration of her brother to pursue musical excellence. As an adult, she is known worldwide as a brilliant violinist, and I enjoyed reading the whirlwind of her young adulthood in the wild, declining Parisian art scene. Altogether, I felt that the novel balanced well the large-scale slow apocalypse and the small-scale story of Roushana’s life, such that both were equally compelling.
Near the end of Roushana’s life, her story has moved into a contemplation of the nature of identity, mortality and memory. Roushana’s musing on the imperfection of stories, as they change depending on the perspective of the teller, is reflected in a major musical piece of her century, an artificially intelligent symphony that changes over time. There isn’t a lot of information on the technology of the symphony, or on the technology that would enable Roushana to exist past her physical lifetime. Instead, the story focuses on the meaning of these technologies in the context of human life. I don’t know if I would have made the same decisions as Roushana, but I felt like the conclusion was true to her character.
My Rating: 4/5
Song of Time tells the life story of an elderly violinist who has lived through a turbulent century, through the memories she recounts to an amnesiac man she has rescued. The story worked extremely well on the large-scale level of the world’s slow collapse as well as on the small-scale, personal, emotional level of Roushana’s life. The mystery of the rescued man, Adam, ties into the ideas about identity and mortality that Roushana is exploring as she considers the end of her life, and whether she should seize the chance for a post-death existence in the future world. Song of Time was a wonderfully immersive story, though a pretty sad one, and is a novel that I think I will remember for a long time to come.