cover image A Song of Stone

A Song of Stone

Iain M. Banks. Simon & Schuster, $23 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85353-6

""This could be any place or time,"" observes the narrator of this near-future fable, summing up the universality of its antiwar sentiments. Although vague in the details of geography and history, Banks's latest U.S. release (after Excession) is sharp and perceptive in its philosophical exploration of the dehumanizing potential of armed conflict. Set in a Brechtian landscape of revolution and depleted resources, it follows the tribulations of Abel, an aristocrat forced to billet Lieutenant Lute and her guerrilla army in his castle. Initially, the two treat each other with a strained civility that allows Abel to gloat secretly at the profane hordes who ""commonise... what should be free from vulgar threat."" As the battle draws threateningly nearer, the pretense of mutual respect dissolves and Abel finds the increasingly barbaric behavior of his captors resonating with a savagery in his own soul. Like J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, Banks is a visionary whose depictions of the strange forms morality, politics and social relationships assume under the pressure of extreme circumstances fall almost by default into the realm of science fiction and horror. His impeccable prose undulates with a poetry and sensuality that transform the most ordinary movements of his tale into resonant images of beauty and terror. In less skilled hands, Abel's reluctant acknowledgment of his class's complicity in the despoliation of the country might have been just another war-is-hell story. Banks makes it the fulcrum of an emotionally intense odyssey of self-revelation. (Sept.) FYI: Simon & Schuster will simultaneously reissue Banks's first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), in trade paper.