“There is no love in thought, nothing that lasts in deduction, only death in rationalism.”
SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Song of Susannah is the sixth book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and it’s also the shortest since…actually, potentially since The Gunslinger, the very first book. It sees Susannah, possessed by the sinister Mia (mother of one, daughter of none), leaving Mid-World for New York, there to have her demonic and mysterious baby.
I rated Susannah very highly the first time I read it, mostly, I think, because it was rather a relief to read such a short book on the heels of the bloated Wolves of the Calla, not to mention Wizard and Glass. But it doesn’t stand up nearly so well to a re-read, partly because the conflicts upon which King builds his world haven’t actually developed at all from The Waste Lands, and partly because he makes some very dodgy storytelling choices.
But I’m feeling generous today, so let’s start with the good, shall we? Because there are good things about Song of Susannah, never think otherwise. I very much enjoyed the relationship between the story’s core characters, Susannah and Mia: their carefully negotiated dance of alliance and betrayal and help and hindrance is nicely orchestrated and ultimately rather sad. I can’t help thinking there’s a feminist message in all of this, as both are manoeuvred, manipulated, forced to turn against each other, by the forces of the male Crimson King, who is Evil. (This is all you need to know about the Crimson King; he never becomes anything more than a cipher.) Which would at least make some sense in King’s multiverse, as the King is a servant of Discordia, the force opposed to everything that is shiny and nice, a category which definitely includes civil rights (and something is made in the novel of Susannah’s past in the civil rights movement of the sixties) and presumably includes feminism. Discordia and the Crimson King, we’re led to believe, are opposed to progress, at least in the humanitarian sense.
But this is where it all falls down. Because it turns out (this is very much a book where things Turn Out, more or less hand-wavily) that the march of Discordia, the rooms of ruin, the falling of the Tower, are all to do with the fact that magic has been replaced by technology:
The magic went away. Maerlyn retired to his cave in one world, the sword of Eld gave way to the pistols of the gunslingers in another, and the magic went away. And across the arc of years, great alchemists, great scientists, and great – what? – technicians, I think? Great men of thought, anyway, that’s what I mean, great men of deduction – these came together and created the machines which ran the Beams. They were great machines but they were mortal machines. They replaced the magic with machines, do ya kennit, and now the machines are failing…Soon enough the Dark Tower will fall. Perhaps there’ll be time for one splendid moment of universal rational thought before the darkness rules forever. Wouldn’t that be nice?
So…progress is bad now?
Of course, this pleasant little passage (and I just want to remark here that, however irritating the ideology, Susannah does contain some of the most visionary and most haunting writing of the series) is picking up on the motif of alienation that King’s been riffing on since The Waste Lands. Machines, it’s implied, distance us from the way the world works; they make inferior copies of nature, they make us forget what human is, what natural is. Fine; this is core SF stuff, potentially interesting if handled in the right way. But giving it a why, and a fantastical one at that, is a huge mistake, because the whole point about the kind of alienation King describes in The Waste Lands, the alienation that comes, ultimately, from that book’s namesake, T.S. Eliot’s hauntingly and dangerously beautiful poem The Waste Land, is that there is no why. There is no narrative that allows us to join up all the dots; there is no connection to the past, because there are no connections anywhere. That is what alienation means. Connecting us back to that past, giving us a reason for our alienation, however horrible the reason is, effectively un-alienates us and undoes all that strange, fantastic worldbuilding King’s been doing for five books.
Annoying as it is, none of this stuff actually affects enjoyment of Susannah; it’s stuff that occurs to you when you’ve finished it, when you’re thinking about the series of the whole. The one thing that actually made me want to throw the book at the wall – not a thing that happens as often as you’d think – was King’s insertion of himself into the story. This is a bad idea at the best of times. Here, however, there are whole passages in which King the Writer describes King the Character as a god, the key to all the worlds, the saviour of the Tower – I mean, how self-important can you get? No one, after all, remembers the singer. It’s the song that remains, and that’s how it should be.
Susannah may be the nail in the coffin of the strange and wonderful world we get in the first three books in the series. It’s not, in itself, a bad book, and it’s certainly better than Wolves; but it is the book which turns the Dark Tower series, finally, from a potent, apocalyptic, profoundly unsettling view of a world not quite ours but not quite not into just another fantasy series, easily tidied away into the box labelled “Quests”.