A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
There’s something about Scotland that suits dystopias of the military takeover kind–the abundance of castles, lochs and game all play their parts. Distant memory reminds me of the last episodes of the mid-1970s BBC series Survivors which had the plucky survivors in the Highlands, negotiating with a laird and his army to get the power back on (for all – not just the laird). Maybe that inspired Banks when he wrote his own, published in 1997. And possibly both inspired Louise Welsh when she completed her ‘Plague Times trilogy’ (reviewed here) with her protagonists similarly battling tooled-up Scottish lairds in a castle at one point.
It isn’t always the lairds that are in charge though. As A Song of Stone begins, society has broken down and minor aristocrats Abel and his partner Morgan are abandoning their small moated castle, travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, which they think would draw less attention than their SUVs. They join the trail of refugees travelling to find safety, but they are stopped within a few miles by a band of soldiers, a burning van blocks the road:
It was there we saw the lieutenant first, rising from beyond the wreck’s full bloody flames, her figure distorted by that rising heat as though through twisting water; a rock to foul the flow. (…)
‘And you, sir?’ she asks. Her voice possesses a roughness I find perversely pleasant, even as my skin crawls at a buried menace in her words, a promissory threat. Did she suspect, did she foresee something even then? Did our carriage mark us out within that crowd, a jewel set in a baser band, appealing to the predator in her? (…)
‘Have you anything we might want?’ the uniformed woman asks, swinging lightly up on to the carriage’s kick-step and – with another smile at you – leaning over to life the edge of the travel rug with the muzzle of her long gun.
But one of the other refugees dobs Abel in…
‘Sir,’ she says, smiling at me. ‘You have a castle? You should have said.’
They are made to return to the castle with the Lieutenant, known to her men as ‘Loot’, and her band of mercenaries, all of whom have nicknames: Karma, Psycho, Verbal, Grunt are just a few. At first the soldiers mostly respect the castle’s contents, but when a rival gang shoots a shell at the castle which does some real damage, Abel finds himself taken along with the gang to capture their carriage gun, and upon their victorious return, the soldiers celebrate and basically trash the place, Loot lets them let off steam and she herself seduces Morgan, Abel ends up being put in the well – and sitting in the shallow water at the bottom vows vengeance. It doesn’t end up well for anyone, turning rather Gothic and violent.
Abel is our narrator, both pompous and unreliable; he’s not likeable at the start, although as the novel goes on our sympathies for him change – well a little. He has a particularly annoying habit in his narration of talking about Morgan in the second person as ‘you’. Morgan doesn’t, in fact, speak much at all in the book. But she is no wall-flower, being very enthusiastic in their love-making, which is just as well as Abel is obviously very highly sexed. There is one scene in which he has a dream of them on a horse, she impaled in his lap as they canter round (!!!) that would have been worthy of the Bad Sex Award had it not been Banks having fun with Abel’s inflated ego. Bondage, autoerotic asphyxiation, threesomes – Morgan participates freely too, and she and Abel have another big secret…
Had I not read about it in Ken MacLeod’s introduction to Banks’s poetry, I wouldn’t have known that Banks incorporated the themes and ideas from one of his poems (not included in the book) into this novel. The poem was called Feu de Joie after celebratory gunfire and was this novel’s original title. The book also embodies the four medieval elements: fire, air, water and earth – represented by the main characters: Loot being fire, Abel being water, Morgan air and it’s the castle itself that represents earth.
The odd aristocratic couple’s cocooned and privileged life hasn’t prepared them for this final frontier. Abel, for all his faults–and they are many–is a romantic, and often pauses to wax lyrical and philosophise. I can imagine the first line below coming from Banks’s original poem perhaps?
The hand’s grasp near fits the skull, the covering bone by bone enclosed. And saying this, we grasp that.
We each contain the universe inside our selves, the totality of existence encompassed by all that we have to make sense of it; a grey, ridged mushroom mass ladled into a bony bowl the size of a small cooking pot (the lieutenant’s men should look inside the webbed and greasy darkness of their own tin helmets, and see the cosmos). In my more solipsistic moments, I have conjectured that we do not simply experience everything within that squashed sphere, but create it there too. Perhaps we think up our own destinies, and so in a sense deserve whatever happens to us, for not having had the wit to imagine something better.
I remember not enjoying this novel too much on its publication, coming after Whit which I did really enjoy (my next re-read I think). I suspect I didn’t get Abel’s character and also that it wasn’t dystopian enough for me then. This time, I was drawn to Loot (who reminds me of Bess Till in Snowpiercer, right). I’m also used to the second person and have matured in my reading to demand less of the plot and understand the book for the morality tale that it is underneath its dystopian trappings.
Source: Own copy – paperback, 280 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
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