Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2009 Clarke and Campbell – SONG OF TIME by Ian MacLeod

Ian MacLeod is yet another innovative Brit to break in at the start of the twenty-first century. This novel made a very good first impression on me. The prose is stunning; this is easily one of the best-written novels I’ve read for this project. I’m just not sure that the story lives up to MacLeod’s crisp and elegant language.

The novel is narrated by a British woman of part-Indian descent named Roushana Maitland. Most of it is a sort of memoir of her life through the twenty-first century, which turns out to be a rough one. As environmental disasters, war, refugee crises, and increased religious and racial strife take their toll on the world, Roushana deals with personal tragedies and becomes a violin virtuoso. This sort of dystopia pile-on isn’t especially new – I was reminded a lot of Butler’s Earthseed at times – but the perspective of a wealthy and successful artist is more original. Some of the sub-plots add some new wrinkles as well – like post-human “ghosts” and a Frankenstein’s-monster messiah figure who sells bottled water and takes Paris by storm. There’s also a framing story wherein we follow the elderly Roushana in Cornwall as she encounters and befriends a mysterious naked man who washed up on the beach.

The writing and Roushana’s story were strong enough to keep me turning the pages, but some of my initial enthusiasm wore off as the novel went on. It’s just so damned bleak. MacLeod piles hate upon disaster upon disease upon destruction. Again, this isn’t unlike Butler’s Earthseed, but there are two big differences: Roushana isn’t as strong or compelling as Olamina. She’s often lost and confused, and she ends up playing second fiddle (pun alert!) to her composer husband Claude for much of the novel. Also Earthseed was a struggle for survival, while Roushana’s privileged position precludes that exciting element. When MacLeod unleashed his final U.S.-destroying disaster, I responded with an “Oh come on!” rather than getting further absorbed in the story. MacLeod also piled on a series of “surpise” melodramatic scenes from Roushana’s personal life in some late twists that also had me rolling my eyes a bit.

So, the darkness overwhelms a well-written story about the arts, but it’s not quite dark enough to be a compelling story of survival. And all of this rather overwhelms MacLeod’s exploration of his central themes of memory and mortality. But, it was an engaging read, and I’d like to check out some more MacLeod.

Grade: B

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