Saturday, May 28, 2011

You got your music in my SF

Today I thought I'd talk about some half-formed ideas regarding music in science fiction. This line of thinking was sparked off by a few things, one of which was listening to the Tad Williams story "The Tenth Muse" on StarShipSofa (episode #164, although I first read it in The New Space Opera 2, edited by Dozois and Strahan [2009]).

The story is set in some unspecified far future (I assume), aboard a wormhole-travelling starship. One of the central characters is a linguist, and he's got a love for opera. There's a scene where he talks through Don Giovanni's encounters with the Commendatore in the Mozart opera, with the music playing in the background. It stood out for me, because (listening to) music is a big part of my life, but I feel like it is largely absent from the SF that I read.

I was originally going to say that I think it's a bit of a cop out to decide that your denizen of the 24th century (or whatever) loves Mozart, or The Beatles, or The Black Keys. That's not really fair, though -- it can be a very useful tool, precisely because you can hope your reader will be familiar with the music you're writing about. And honestly, I think that most attempts to invent the music of the future end up sounding ridiculous (I'm looking at you, Star Trek).

I don't think that means that there's nothing you can do with music in SF, beyond referencing real-world examples. When I say that it's a big part of my life, I'm not really talking about particular artists. They're kind of beside the point. Music is important to me because it's with me nearly everywhere I go, scoring a lot of my daily life. It also connects me with other people, a great many of them total strangers. At gigs, via music journalism on the internet, even just listening to whatever is playing at the local cafe.

I'd love to see this sort of thing feature in science fiction. The way that music interacts with the everyday, and informs the way a character sees the world. I can't tell you how many times the right (or wrong) piece of music has altered my mood, and my outlook on what's happening around me. No doubt this is tricky to do -- I'm in awe of people who can write interestingly about music -- but I'd love to see someone try.

Which brings me to "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues", a novelette by relatively new writer Gord Sellar. This is another one I heard on StarShipSofa (episode #71), although again I'd read it first (in Asimov's SF July 2008 issue). If I'm remembering correctly, it's an alternate history (future?) story about 1940s jazz musicians performing for our alien overlords, out around Jupiter's moons. This story is about music, in the way that I'm grasping to describe here. You should read (or listen to) it.

Sellar notes on his website that Vernor Vinge said this story was to jazz as hard SF is to science. That's what I'm trying to say. I want more of that. Is it out there and I just don't know about it?


  1. One of the other things that sparked off this line of thinking, in case you're interested, was Scott Pilgrim (the movie). It wasn't really about the music, but the music was a huge part of it -- different music, and it would have been a very different film. Of course, it's probably easier to play with that sort of thing when you've got a soundtrack.

  2. I recently finished reading I Am Legend. The central character there has music as a big part of his life as his records are among the few leisure activities he has access to. The notes with my reprint mention the prominent role of music which, I presume, supports your view that it is unusual. I mean, they wouldn't mention it otherwise.

  3. Oh, I've never read I Am Legend (seen the movie, which I gather is quite different) -- does the music feature more prominently than just background flavour? And did you enjoy the book?

  4. I think the music is there to add depth to the main character really. If I was more familiar with the classical pieces mentioned that might provide a greater benefit.

    As for enjoying it, yes, very much so. It is pretty short and pretty fast flowing so I found very readable. I would recommend it.