Review of Lifesong by Julia Blake
by Julia Blake
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Full disclosure: the author was my landlady when I lived in the UK! Despite our age difference, we got along quite well because of our penchant for watching science fiction and humorous British TV shows, or documentaries with luminaries such as Lucy Worsley. Julia first gave me a copy of Lifesong to take with me on my final flight back home, telling me not to read it until I was on the plane. More recently, I received a final draft copy of Lifesong from her in return for some feedback and then a review. It was good then, and it’s good now.
The unnamed protagonist lives on a world where every living thing has this eponymous quality of the lifesong. Everyone can hear lifesongs, and interacting with these songs is an essential part of everyone’s life and comes as easily as breathing. Our protagonist is renowned as a lifesong sculptor, shaping wood and other objects through their lifesongs. At the start of the story, she has just lost her grandfather, a respected member of her village’s community and surrogate parent for her after her parents died when she was young. While grieving for her grandfather, our protagonist discovers a way to follow the universal lifesong away from her world. She winds up on Earth, at least in a psychic projection kind of way, and is horrified to discover that nothing on this planet has or can hear a lifesong. Nevertheless, she manages to form a close connection with a human who has lost someone close to him—but her frequent visits come with a cost, and she soon finds herself unable to return to her world, where her physical form is at risk of wasting away.
Lifesong is very much a character-driven story in which the main character’s emotions and the depth of her connection to the world are the most important elements. This is where the novella form excels: a short story is not enough to develop the character or her adventure in enough detail, but a novel would require a lot more explanations, more scenes and exposition. This length is perfect, with enough time to build to a climax without getting bogged down in subplots and side-characters. The first two acts of the story are a little slow, but they are steady, with each chapter introducing the reader to new concepts and expanding on what we know about the protagonist’s world and life. That final act though … once she discovers she might be “trapped” on Earth and doomed to die, that’s intense.
This is very much a story along the lines of thought experiment social SF. It reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s short stories, and its environmental themes are quite reminiscent of recurring themes in Le Guin’s work, from Earthsea to Always Coming Home. The lifesongs as a codified embodiment of the Gaia hypothesis directly challenge any Western reader’s conception of the Earth as a set of resources to be extracted, exploited, used, or even just managed. The attitudes of the characters in the protagonist’s world remind me of a lot of the attitudes we find in many Indigenous cultures with regards to caring for and living in balance with the natural world. However, Blake smartly avoids any temptation to draw those direct parallels, and so you won’t see any stereotypical “tribal people” or “noble primitive” tropes in this story.
Blake’s writing style is quite lyrical, with the kind of rich descriptions in roundabout ways that help suggest the alienness of the observer. It’s not a style that always works for me, but I liked it here. I think it helps that it contributes to the theme and this idea that humans are the Other here. Lifesong is definitely a Humans Through Alien Eyes story with an ending that hints at humans being the real monsters (TVTropes alert). In particular, I like the ambivalence of the ending—well, I like that it made me feel ambivalent. I’d enjoy seeing a sequel, because Blake leaves avenues open that would make for a nice follow-up story.
Lifesong will probably feel familiar in the channels it follows to people who have read a lot of SF. But it’s a good familiarity, a nice execution of these ideas. Despite having characters who are distant and ultimately ineffable, the story makes you care and makes you think about what actually matters in this world of ours. And that’s what I like my science fiction to do.