A Song of Stone is the latest of Iain Banks' mainstream novels, but like a number of his other non-genre works, there is much here of interest for the SF fan. In this latest offering there is a Banksian take on a subject very reminiscent of J G Ballard, of a society coming apart at the seams, falling under the weight of its own idiocies.
This is a story without a definite place in space or time. The setting seems relatively modern, though it could be any time since the thirties, and almost any European, or at least European settled, country in the world. Wherever and whenever it is, it represents a nation in collapse. The countryside is filled with refugees from an unremarked upon war, probably civil, with small forces of soldiers intent on following their own agendas. The uncertainty of time and place is matched by that of the characters, who are known only by their first names, or by nicknames in the case of the soldiers.
Two themes run through the book. The first concerns the relationship between an aristocratic couple, Abel and Morgan, owners of the castle that acts as the focal point of the novel. Banks parcels out information about the past via Abel (acting as narrator) reflecting on his life, and gradually unveiling the truth about the pair's strange love affair, slowly uncovering the twisted and destructive decadence at the heart of the castle. Against that is opposed the simpler damage wrought by the soldiers indulging themselves in the food and prolific wine available in the castle while they have the chance. Almost as a by-product the troop causes a slow deconstruction of the castle's historical contents, the building's inhabitants and finally the place itself.
The twin themes continue in the oppositions in the novel. Between Abel and the female Lieutenant leading the soldiers there is a war of words, as Abel sullenly accedes to the Lieutenant's demands, and then has to cooperate as she begins using the castle as a centre for military operations in the surrounding district, giving of his local knowledge as demanded. Alongside that, there is the closeness that develops between the female officer and Morgan, who becomes almost a talisman for the troop. This tension makes Abel the butt of taunts and cruel practical jokes by the soldiers, something the Lieutenant makes no effort to control and which has disastrous consequences.
Banks' writing throughout alternates between the spare and the lush. He seems to hit a 'purple prose' button on his word processor at the start of each chapter, revelling in short orgies of description, then throttling back for the main business of sculpting his plot out of cold hard stone. Here is another contrast in the book, between the richness of his descriptive prose and the grittiness of his writing about the troop as they go about their business. The writing seems to echo the dichotomy between the central characters -- the colourful but fading aristocrats against the sharp focus of the Lieutenant, whose edges slowly erode as she is drawn in by Abel and Morgan. She takes on some of their colour only to discover the deadly decay that such a gift brings with it.
A Song of Stone is a hard book to like unreservedly. Its underlying pessimism, its lack of a central character that one can readily empathise with (Abel as narrator quickly establishes himself as someone you want to distance yourself from), and its rootless, timeless nature make the book a difficult one to enthuse about. But having said that, Banks works his normal magic from this unlikely material and draws the reader in despite everything, proving once again what a master storyteller he has become.
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© John D Owen 26 February 1998