Clarke Award: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (2008)


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.

Clarke Award: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008)

My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds (I’ll be saying that a lot in the course of these Clarke Award posts, as I haven’t read any novels by four of the other authors on the shortlist, and the sixth author I read such a long time ago that I don’t really remember my opinion of the book), and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision.

House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ‘shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation).

We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ‘strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of Gentian Line destroyed. Accompanied by Hesperus, one of the sentient Machine People as their companion, Purslane and Campion meet up with the survivors; but they’ll discover that a dark secret lies behind the ambush; and their understanding of the universe — and themselves — is about to change.

The novel is told in the first person, with Campion and Purslane narrating alternate chapters; there is also a recurring plot strand dealing with the early life of Abigail Gentian (which could be narrated by either clone, as all Abigail’s shatterlings have memories of her life). The latter does not seem to add much to the story, beyond setting the scene and introducing some apparatus that will reappear at the end; but, since these sections are quite short, it didn’t really bother me. More problematic is that Purslane’s and Campion’s narrative voices can’t be told apart, which weakens the characterisation and makes it hard to keep track of whose chapter is whose (I suppose this could be explained by the two characters’ being versions of the same person, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty).

Although it’s disappointing that, in effect, the novel has one narrative voice, that voice is not unengaging. I particularly liked some of Reynolds’ imagery, such as this example from near the beginning: ‘…an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons’.

But it’s not the prose that’s the star attraction of House of Suns — it’s the constant flood of imagination. Reynolds’ remarkably busy universe includes not only the exotic humans and the machine intelligences, but also such phenomena as the Vigilance, a vast living library, and the Spirit of the Air, a cloud-shaped higher intelligence who was once a man (both of these latter are beautifully described). Ideas and revelations come thick and fast, the pace builds as the end approaches — and, despite the occasional sense of things being pulled out of a hat (as if to say, ‘ta-dah!’), the author controls it all very well.

However, this approach is not without its problems. In particular, Reynolds’ story raises serious questions about issues like torture and guilt; but I’m not sure that these are explored in all the depth they should have been — indeed, I’m not sure there’s time for Reynolds to do so, given the structure he uses: the plot gets in the way to an extent. But, all in all, House of Suns is a very enjoyable piece of space opera, and surely not the last Alastair Reynolds novel I’ll be reading.

BOOK REVIEW: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin (2009)

I have a review up at The Zone of A Madness of Angels, the first novel for adults by young-adult author Catherine Webb  (writing as ‘Kate Griffin’). It’s the story of Matthew Swift, a sorcerer in contemporary London who has been resurrected (by whom, he doesn’t know) with an extra passenger, and soon discovers that his old mentor is behind a dastardly plot…

The book has its flaws, but is still an entertaining read with some really good imaginative flourishes that lift it out of the ordinary. I gave it 4 stars.

Read the review in full.

The double-edged sword of Spotify

I’ve come across an article at MusicOMH by music producer Mark Moore (of S’Express) about Spotify, the new application that allows you to (legally) stream music over the internet, either for a monthly fee, or for free if you don’t mind a few adverts in between tracks. Moore’s argument is essentially that, though Spotify has been endorsed by the record industry, it’s actually detrimental to the long-term survival of that industry, because who’s going to buy music when you can listen to whatever you want for free?

Now, I’m a monthly subscriber to Spotify, and I think the program is a great idea. I’ve never personally been interested in carrying music around with me, and so never been interested in downloading — but I like listening to music when I’m working at the compter, and the ability to listen to whatever I want whilst doing so was very appealing. All the music posts on the present blog were done with the aid of Spotify; and it would have been a boon when I was blogging the Mercury Prize last year.

Nevertheless, I can see Moore’s point. I am not going to stop buying music: I’ve no plans to stop paying for Spotify, and I will still be buying the CDs of my favourite artists, and any other albums and hear and love. But it’s true that I feel less inclined to take a chance on an album where I’ve only heard a couple of songs, when I can listen to the whole thing on Spotify instead. And I would imagine I’m in the minority of Spotify users when I pay the monthly fee — ads can be ignored, and who doesn’t like getting things for free?

I’ll agree, there is a real issue over how musicians, now and especially in the future, are going to earn enough money from making music to make it worth their while. And I can’t offer any suggestions as to how that issue might be resolved. I am sympathetic to Moore’s idea of  having a six-month gap between an album’s release and its appearance on Spotifty (though, perhaps selfishly, I’d want to see that gap closed, or at least narrowed, for paid subscribers) — but Spotify would lose one of its major selling-points if that were to happen, so I can’t see it myself.

And in conclusion..? There is no conclusion, really. I’ll continue to use Spotify, because it’s convenient; and I’ll hope that artists are able to make all the music they want in the years to come.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008)

They came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was tragedy, of course: indigenous creatures known to the settlers as ‘Spackle’ released a germ that killed all the women of Prentisstown and half the men, and left the survivors broadcasting their thoughts to each other in a stream of what they now call ‘Noise’.

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, though in a month’s time he will turn thirteen and so become a man. One day, whilst out in the swamp with his dog Manchee (who can speak, but only a word or two at a time), Todd finds a pocket of silence – a place where there’s no Noise. This shouldn’t be possible but, as Todd is about to find out, a lot of things he believes about life and the world are actually wrong.

When Todd returns home, he tells Ben and Cillian (who raised him after his mother died) about the ‘hole in the Noise’ – but doesn’t get the response he expects. Ben and Cillian tell Todd he must leave Prentisstown immediately; they won’t explain why, but give the boy a knife and his mother’s diary which, they say, will tell him all he needs to know. Unfortunately for Todd, he can’t read. Still, off he goes with Manchee, soon finding that not only are there females on New World (Tood meets a strange girl named Viola, who has no Noise of her own), but also that Prentisstown is not the only settlement on the planet, and that there’s a dark secret at the heart of the town which explains why an army of its inhabitants are marching after him…

Oh, but this is a wonderful book. First of all, Todd is a superbly realised character. Ness tells his tale in a first-person dialect that sounds like a real voice; finds the right balance between being different without becoming annoying; and reveals as much about Todd as anything he does or says. Here, for example, is Todd describing the difference between his and Viola’s accents:

‘Her lips make different kinds of outlines for the letters, like they’re swooping down on them from above, pushing them into shape, telling them what to say. In Prentisstown, everyone talks like they’re sneaking up on their words, ready to club them from behind.’

There is a downside, though, to having such a strongly ‘present’ first-person narrator, which is that the secondary characters aren’t fleshed out as much. Viola’s character is quite rounded, but those furthest from Todd (such as his adult nemeses in Prentisstown) come across as quite flat (but how could they not, when Todd hardly knows them?). Still, that’s a price worth paying to have the joy of reading Todd’s words.

Ness also uses Todd’s voice to great effect when writing action sequences. His two main techniques are long, breathless sentences full of conjunctions; and extended sequences of single-sentence paragraphs. They really do make the story feel more kinetic; which helps balance out the linear nature of the plot, which is a pretty standard race to the end. In other circumstances, this might be a problem; here, the pages fly by, so it doesn’t matter.

The book’s title is interesting. The formulation ‘The Noun of Adjective’ in the title of a science fiction or fantasy story usually indicates a thing of great power or importance. I was really pleased to see that this novel’s titular knife is just an ordinary hunting-knife — there’s nothing mystical about it. And yet, the knife is highly significant for what it represents to Todd; it’s his symbol of being a man, it gives him the power to do things he couldn’t otherwise do (such as killing), and to let go of the knife is to relinquish that power. So naturally, there is violence, bloodshed, and death in The Knife of Never Letting Go; but these things are not gratuitous or glorified, as Todd comes to realise that violence is not the answer, whatever the question. (That’s not the only way in which Todd grows up during the book; the changes in the way he sees Viola are well handled by Ness, as Todd experiences the first stirrings of feelings he cannot name, but which we recognise.)

Of course, there are problems with the book. One quibble I have is that it’s implied that Todd’s narrative voice is his Noise, and occasionally Viola (who can hear Todd’s Noise even though she has none of her own) will react to something in the narration; but not as often as she would if it were Todd’s Noise. I didn’t like that sense of Ness’ cherry-picking to suit the plot. And a few things aren’t explored as fully as they could have been: we don’t see enough of the Spackle; nor, to the best of my recollection, do we learn the significance of the ‘hole in the Noise’. But, as the cliffhanger ending reminds us, there’s time yet, for a sequel is coming. And one advantage of reading this excellent book in the year after its publication is that I don’t have to wait long for that sequel.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2009 shortlist

The shortlist for the 2009 Arthur C.Clarke Award (given to a science fiction novel published in the UK during the previous year) has been announced:

Ian R. MacLeod, Song of Time

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Sheri S. Tepper, The Margarets

Mark Wernham, Martin Martin’s on the Other Side

I had it in mind to blog about this year’s shortlist, though I’m a little put off by the great length of some of these tomes. I’ll see how far I get, and the titles above will turn into links as I post about the books.

I am not widely read enough to be able to jusge whether these six novels represent the best science fiction of 2008 (though I have read two books from last year — one of which I have yet to post about — that I felt would be good nominees, and both are absent), and have read precisely none of the shortlisted books. But this strikes me as a shortlist which is very much weighted towards the ‘traditional’ end of the SF spectrum, in the sense that five of the books are by ‘name’ SF authors, with only the Werhnam a ‘non-genre’ choice. (The novels themselves may be far from ‘traditional’ SF; I haven’t read them yet, so I don’t know.)

The winner of the Clarke Award will be announced on 29 April. I may not get all six read by then, but I’ll have a good go at it. Stay tuned!