Ian MacLeod‘s Song of Time begins as Roushana Maitland, an aged concert violinist, finds an angelically beautiful young man washed up on the shore near her Cornish home. He has no memory of himself or his past, so Roushana calls him Adam, which becomes, in effect, his real name. She tells the young man stories from her life — memories of her childhood in Birmingham, of travelling to India with her mother to aid the victims of nuclear fallout, of her musical career in Paris. But there’s another point to these recollections (which alternate with present-tense passages depicting Roushana and Adam in Cornwall): Roushana is dying, but has a chance to preserve herself by ‘uploading’ her memories to a crystal implanted in her brain, which will enable her to enter a virtual ‘afterlife’ (wherein she will still be able to interact with the world, albeit non-corporeally). And, of course, Adam has a secret — but so does Roushana.
My journey through Song of Time was a strange one. For the first third, I found the book very moving; I was feeling the emotions while bypassing the words, which doesn’t happen very often. But the remainder of the novel was much less affecting — apart, that is, from the final pages. Much of that opening third details Roushana’s early life, when she was merely a good musician, overshadowed by her brilliant brother Leo. But Leo had contracted ‘white plague’, an engineered virus that caused multiple food intolerances, and did not have long to live. It’s this early part, laced with tragedy, where I found MacLeod’s writing to be particularly evocative and poignant. For example:
‘All I remember is being summoned from lessons at school just before lunch, and finding Mum sitting waitinf for me on the sofa in the head teacher’s office, her face white and entirely blank. The head seemed embarrassed, and mumbled that it was probably better if she left us both alone.’
So what happens to the emotional impact later on? What changes? In a way, nothing — what happens is that, as the story moves on, something comes to the foreground that had been niggling me from early on. It gives rise to my main problem with Song of Time: that I don’t buy into the future presented by the book. Throughout, the prose style is quiet and reflective; this is appropriate, given the nature of the story, but has the effect of ‘muffling’ the futuristic changes. So, when Roushana describes the more extreme weather of her childhood, we don’t feel that weather — it feels as though life carries on pretty much as it does now, however much the author suggests that it does not. And the Paris of her adult years does not feel as turbulent as the text says it is. Even Roushana’s Cornwall, in the closing years of the current century. has a timeless quality about it; only the sequences set in India don’t feel so distant.
But my credulity was most tested with the eruption in the novel of the Yellowstone supervolcano. I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that such an event would be disastrous for human civilisations the world over. Yet even the impact of this eruption, as depicted in the novel, did not feel as great to me as I thought it should. I had a hard time believing that the world of Roushana’s old age could emerge from that cataclysm, because in many ways it doesn’t feel all that different from our present.
The title Song of Time refers to part of a generative symphony that Roushana performs; music is one of the novel’s key themes, though I can’t really say much more about it — I don’t know enough about music to be able to judge what MacLeod does with the subject. But the book has another important theme, and that’s memory. ‘Memories are what you are,’ says the book, near the beginning. In the case of the dead, with their newly virtual existence, that’s literally true; in the case of Adam — well, he has no memories, so who is he?
And Roushana? Although the connection is never made explicitly in the novel, a life composed of memories could be seen as a ‘song of time’, one that can be changed and re-interpreted each time it’s rehearsed. Perhaps, in the end, Roushana is whatever she wants to remember — or be remembered as.
I may have given the impression here that I dislike Song of Time more than I actually do. It’s flawed, no doubt — but at its best, it is beautifully written and moving (and, though I haven’t touched on this, the characters never rang false even though the world didn’t entirely convince me). In short, the good parts are very good indeed; I just wish there were more of them.