One aspect of the contemporary glut of fiction is book titles have evolved into a mindless flow. Looking through lists of upcoming publications, award winners, recommended books, etc. and the titles all start to blend together. In epic fantasy, for example, one can take a couple token words, add a pronoun and article or two, and you’ve got the next published series. The Axe of the North, Dragon’s Fire, The Oath in Stone, etc. could easily exist, somewhere, such is the surfeit of fiction (and maybe they do, I haven’t checked). Overall this is very unhealthy for readers, and the industry in general. Quantity heavily outweighing quality, good perhaps even great books with titles that would have been standout fifty years ago are now being overlooked in the milieu. I can’t help but feel Ian Macleod’s 2008 Song of Time is one such novel.
The name of a symphony inherent to the story (like “Cloud Atlas” in David Mitchell’s novel of the same name), Song of Time is the story of Roushana Maitland. Half Hindi and half Irish, she grows up in a near-future Britain only slightly more evolved from our own. Heavily affected by the death of her musically gifted brother, Roushana takes up the violin with fervor. Other tragedies striking, both personal and global, she uses them to fuel her drive, or at least distract, going on to become a world class musician. And that world is changing around her. Europe goes through major political transformations, nature rears its ugly head in continental fashion, and technology only opens further possibilities. Now in old age living alone by the Cornish sea, Roushana has made the decision to continue living even after her mortal body has passed. But when a young man washes ashore, things change.
Like the work of Herman Hesse, Song of Time is a novel that flows effortlessly. The prose a gurgling brook, you’ve cruised through one hundred pages and are part of the characters’ lives before you know it. And Roushana’s story is worth it; her personal development in a bi-cultural home, in music, and in an evolving world involve the reader for how honest and real they feel. This makes the fact Song of Time is not a character study so interesting.
As Macleod switches back and forth between her present tense in old-age and the past-tense recollections of life, Roushana is front and center. Yet it is her backdrop which most strongly influences the direction of her life. From the death of her brother due to a new disease called white plague to a fresh outbreak of war between muslims and hindus in India and Pakistan, environmental catastrophes to major political reform, her life is tossed on the seas of change. (It is, in fact, only at the end of the novel that Roushana seems to take matters into her own hands and make a decision in the face of things.) The title indeed epic, Macleod would seem to highlight how strongly we are impacted by the transformations happening around us—products of our time and individual circumstances—more than individual choice or agency. Most novels of such import use history to illustrate their points, which makes the realistic application of future history in Song of Time interesting; Macleod’s future is wholly believable, which leads to…
In The Summer Isles Macleod brilliantly portrayed how subtly conservatism can creep into government and personal life to restrict human autonomy in oppressive fashion. Not an overt description of tyranny like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the novel portrayed a situation wherein a charismatic right wing leader came to power and instituted, both formally and informally, a more restrictive political program. Feeding off people’s fears of the changes happening around them, it was supported by a public who in another era may have been resistant to such limitation. Though right-wing politics are only one facet of Macleod’s near-future setting, Song of Time nevertheless portrays parallels to current politics in the West. Published a decade ago, the novel is prescient of the current shift toward nationalism, conservatism, and in general closed borders and locked doors happening in significant sectors in the West. The shift in the novel is portrayed in France (a country in which the most recent election featured a conservative candidate who was a very strong contender for president), but such conservatism is likewise seen more broadly, from Trump to Brexit, Poland’s culturocentric self-isolation to Hungary’s conservative hardening, which makes for a discussion-provoking real world backdrop to the novel.
In the end, Song of Time is an engrossing meditation on the meaning of life in a world even more dynamic than ours today, through the lenses of nature, politics, culture, and technology—basically all the elements which influence our daily lives. The story is told entirely through the eyes of a woman who devotes her life to music, and the choices she has and choices pushed upon her by changing circumstances of the world. I’m unsure how well the ending encapsulates Macleod’s overarching idea, but given how the weight of the novel is delivered from page one, it’s a minor complaint. It may get lost in the current milieu of titles, but if you see a copy, take notice.