SF & Music: a Personal Reflection
Remember the good old 1980s / when things were so uncomplicated?
I wish I could go back there again / and everything could be the same.
So begins the fourth track of Electric Light Orchestra’s classic concept album “Time”, in a which a man is seduced from his home and taken to a future that welcomes him but leaves him feeling like a stranger. Missing a loved-one he left behind, he spends much of his time confused and forlorn, despite being surrounded by all the wonders of the 21st century:
I’ve got a ticket to the moon / I’ll be leaving here any day soon
I’ve got a ticket to the moon / but I’d rather see the sunrise / in your eyes.
I’ve got a ticket to the moon / I’ll be rising high above the Earth so soon
And the tears I cry might turn into the rain / that gently falls upon your window / you never know.
ELO’s protagonist is eventually rescued by scientists in the world he rejects. They send him back home, presumably to the person he has missed all this time and, one hopes, to a prosperous future courtesy of memorizing all those winners of the Melbourne Cup while he was away.
It’s not an original plot, but it seemed revolutionary to me when it came out. Until then, my two great interests, music and reading SF, had never crossed paths. Sure, there had been Jeff Wayne’s “The War of the Worlds,” but, great though that was, it was a musical, in the same category as “Jesus Christ Superstar”; the story got in the way of the music. It was also something of an anomaly. There had been the occasional song that caught my ear courtesy of its SFnal textures. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is the obvious one, but I never liked it as much as Boney M’s “Nightflight to Venus”, I’m ashamed to say. And a whole album evolving around SFnal themes? By a band I liked? Unheard of.
Of course, if I’d been born a little earlier or had cooler parents, the idea would not have seemed so revolutionary. The concept of the concept album was novel to me at that time. Even though I was dimly aware of the existence of bands like Genesis and Yes, I’d grown up in a household that thought Cat Stevens was alternative. Hawkwind was completely outside my experience. Music and SF collided, for me, in that wonderful time that, until recently, anyway, has been almost universally reviled: the early 80s.
It was a big time for both music and SF. The New Wave was just beginning to sink under cyperpunk; punk music had killed off the hippies, and was in turn falling to electropop and the New Romantics, with their bad haircuts and even stranger duds. Corporate Rock strode upstage in its leather pants to wrench the microphone back from the under-produced, while spin-off novels leaked steadily onto the bookshelves, responding to the demand created by such small- and big-screen franchises as Dr Who and Star Wars. Things were in a state of flux, both for me, a teenager going through high school, and for the rest of the world–the parts I cared about, at least.
I didn’t know that at the time. Then, I was just stumbling through my life with all the grace of one of those little Space Invader guys, the ones with six legs alternating between knock-kneed and bow-legged. I’d encountered SF in music before, usually by accident. ELO’s album covers, with the big red, yellow, and blue spaceship, had an obvious appeal; if I ever went into space, I wanted to be on the back of just such a monstrosity. Earlier still, I was convinced that Suzi Quatro’s “Glycerine Queen” had to be about some glistening, machine-like cyber-goddess, striding over the band-members’ bodies on the way to wreaking sophisticated sexual carnage elsewhere. Nothing was “cyber” back then, but that didn’t get in the way of the boy who had wondered why Simon & Garfunkle were so worried about Celia breaking their “cart.” Adult things, and a decent vocabulary, were years away.
That Suzi Quatro album, incidentally, was the first record I remember owning. Apart from having an immense crush on Suzi herself, I loved the imagery of the titles: “Glycerine Queen” stood alongside “48 Crash”, “Shine My Machine”, “Official Suburban Superman”, and “Skin Tight Skin “. Five years later, such titles would’ve looked right at home on a Gary Numan cover. Given that early bait, I could quite easily have made the jump to some of the bands working with SF imagery at the time–had I had the money and the encouragement to look. As it was, though, my second album saw to it that my demand for such music stayed well away from contemporary pastures: John Williams’ Academy Award winning soundtrack to Star Wars provided everything I needed with which to accompany my explorations of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov that I found in the dustier corners of Nightcliff Public Library, Darwin. Later I would find Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre, and others to satisfy that need–for stuff that sounded like SF, was marketed as SF (or at least mind-altering), but wasn’t really about anything at all.
I don’t think I can overemphasize how important this collision of SF and music was to me. These were the two things I loved most. How could they not be connected? The day my father brought home Vangelis’s superb album “China” and played the opening bars to me, I was convinced it was the soundtrack to The Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. My naivety appalls me, even though I still experience exactly the same thrill on hearing that music, today. *
The 80s dawned like the voyage to the Moon for the protagonist in “Ticket to the Moon”: Fly, fly through a troubled sky, up to a new world shining bright… I turned fourteen in May, 1981, and whole new world seemed to open up before me. I can’t remember which came first: ELO’s “Time” or the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky.” Either way, both changed the landscape of music forever–for me, if no one else. Less obviously SFnal and much smoother than “Time”, and not even slightly psychedelic, “Eye in the Sky” introduced me to an artist who had been dabbling in the field for years. Classic albums like “I, Robot” and “Tales of Mystery & Imagination” awaited my eager exploration. Whole possibilities opened up as I saw how readily science fiction, fantasy and horror could work up-front in a contemporary musical setting. The same buzz I got from the books I read lurked between the gatefolds of a double album cover. What might take a book a dozen paragraphs to convey could be summed up with one sound-picture in just a few minutes. That was simply magic.
My exploration of music continued, through the shelves of my favourite record stores and beyond. Radio bombarded me with SFnal images, not just in 1981 but throughout the decade:
Thomas Dolby “She Blinded Me With Science”
Mi-Sex “Computer Games”
Cheap Trick “Dream Police”
Styx “Mr Roboto”
The new art form of music videos adopted SFnal images with gleeful relish.
Devo “Beautiful World”
Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star”
Art of Noise “Paranormia”
Nik Kershaw “Wouldn’t it be Good?”
Computer games added to the general excitement, coming to a head in the 1990s when games played at home routinely combined a story, stunning visuals, and a gripping musical soundtrack in the ultimate combination of 80s media. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 1981 wasn’t just the year I discovered the SF concept album; it was also the year I played Atari obsessively to the music of Devo and the Human League, two fringe-SF bands. They certainly looked like SF and sounded like SF. The rise of electropop made turning on the radio a geeky pleasure. I dived into a plasticky, synthetic world where anything, it seemed, was possible.
If I’d only known what was coming, for me personally and for the world in general, I would have jumped on the SF bandwagon a lot sooner. It was everywhere I looked: in my books, on my TV, and most importantly in my ears.
I say “most importantly”, with only a small amount of exaggeration for emphasis. There’s no denying that music has had a profound affect on all of my life, not just writing, but could it really be that important? More important than all those Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov books I read in the 70s?
I think so. As important, at least. When I write, I exercise a part of my mind that is active when I write music, too. It’s also active when I revive my rusty 1st-year maths to solve problems that arise during research. Whether it’s an actual neural pathway or an algorithm that runs when I call upon it, I don’t know. But it feels like the same thing at work. And perhaps as a result of getting so much exercise, these three strands — maths, music and writing — comprise the tripod that keeps me upright. Anything that influences one leg of the tripod inevitably influences the rest.
I sometimes joke that, in an alternate universe, the decision I made in 1989, to attempt to become a fulltime-writer, could easily have gone another way. It almost came down to a toss-up between which career path I should take, and had it actually come to that, two different versions of me, beavering away down different “trouser-legs” of time, might have had equal chances of existing. Occasionally I wonder if the version who went on to write ambient techno and strange neoclassical pieces for string orchestras in the hope of one day getting a gig writing movie scores could be more happy than I am now, in this universe. After all, I’m getting places: I’m being published; I’m productive, and paid well for it; I’m living solely off my writing earnings. What could be better?
But there is a part of me that wishes I could share a little of that other me’s world. That niggling, envious voice encourages me to do what little I can to bring the two worlds back together. I find, therefore, frequent references to music all through my fiction. If I can’t actually write music, lacking as I do the time to hammer out even the occasional note, I might as well pay tribute to it.
Most recognizable, I suppose, are the titles. “White Christmas” and “Heartbreak Hotel” are two obvious ones. More obscure are “Robbery, Assault & Battery” and “Praying to the Aliens”, coming from Genesis and Gary Numan respectively.
I listen to music constantly when I write. “The Resurrected Man” was written almost entirely to Peter Gabriel’s “Us” album, or so Shane Dix reminds me. Why, I can’t remember now; it must have struck a chord. For a year or I wrote to frogs croaking and rainfall, courtesy of sound-effects discs. After that experiment, I came back to music of a more ambient kind, needing some sort of structure and rhythm to egg me along, no matter how subtly. These days it’s a fellow called Steve Roach who accompanies me at my desk, or MP3s of quiet orchestral music, trickling eerily out of my hard drive.
As a result of the latter, perhaps, I can never resist throwing in references to obscure 20th century composers. In Echoes of Earth you’ll find a tribute to Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s “Insect Symphony”, a programmatical work in which a tramp staggers about in a drunken haze, following the busy bustle of insects and confusing them with actual people. The Resurrected Man was originally intended to refer to a number of little-heard polkas, although that ended up being edited out. My novella “The Perfect Gun” takes its title and a number of lines from MC 900ft Jesus’ song “Dali’s Handgun”, and my next solo novel, Widow of Opportunity, will incorporate those same lines. If I can’t be one of them, I figure I can at least give them a plug.
But in what real has SF in music influenced my writing? Very few of my stories are about music itself, mainly because I think it’s impossible (or at least very difficult) to capture in words the experience of listening to music. As someone once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If I’ve felt an urge to make the attempt, it’s been in peripheral ways. My first story ever published was inspired by my time training as a DJ for a local radio station. The main character of “Evermore” was once a composer, but has lost the ability to write music. Sal, whose adventures continue in The Sky Warden & the Sun, has an eidetic memory for melody that doesn’t have much to do with the plot.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of failed attempts. In the early 90s I tried to write a mainstream novel, called Hard, about a comedy tribute band attempting to make it in Adelaide, using SF imagery as a backdrop. Then there was an unpublished novella “Schubert Dandrough & the Daughters of Krataios” which chronicled the adventures of an exomusicologist character. I might slip him into a fat space opera I’m planning to write next year, but it could go the same way as the detailed synopsis I have in a file somewhere for a story called “Fugato” that has yet to go anywhere at all.
I think I can safely say that I’ve never ripped off an idea from a SFnal song. You won’t find Major Tom in one of my stories, or the guy from ELO’s “Time”. So if SF in music hasn’t inspired me directly, what did it do?
First, it encouraged me to listen to music with more than just a passing interest. Music relies heavily on structure, as does fiction. Absorbing both, subconsciously and consciously, has, I’m certain, helped my writing. There are rhythms to story-telling that aren’t visible on the page, that only become apparent as one is tugged through the story on the author’s hook. These rhythms aren’t directly comparable to the movements of a symphony, say, just as sentences don’t exactly correlate to musical phrases or words to notes, but I think the metaphor holds well enough. Novels that consist of one presto–fast-paced–scene after another aren’t as successful as ones that balance fast with slow, loud with soft, strident with seductive. This does, of course, depend on what one wants from a novel, or from a music piece. Some people–including me–will happily listen to 70 minutes of barely changing beats on a progressive house compilation, while others have a preference for the familiar structure forced upon artists by the limitations of the long playing record. No particular structure is better than another, but the fact that structure exists in music, just as it does in fiction writing, means that appreciating one probably helped my expression of the other. It may even have substituted for a study of the structure of the written word, which I abandoned in High School.
Secondly, it influenced the sort of writing I’m interested in. I’ve never been one to stick to just one genre, with music or fiction. Some examples of both art forms push the same buttons, despite being very different in execution. Gary Numan’s Burroughsian nightmarescapes were perfect companions to early cyberpunk. [NB 2011: I did in fact end up using Numan's lyrics extensively in the Astropolis series, starting with Saturn Returns.] Kate Bush fit in well with my delving into dark fantasy. Devo could be the lost love-children of Robert Anton Wilson, while the high-tech stylings of bands like Kraftwerk and Underworld make exotics foils for hard sf, as it dissects what it means to be human with the cutting edge of science.
Thirdly, music reminded me that, whatever I do, whatever final shape my work might take (book, short story, review), it should always be entertaining and/or accessible. If Jeff Lynne could make a singalong ditty out of culture shock, then hell, so could I. There was nothing so sacred or so heavy that it couldn’t be turned into an enjoyable, or at least engaging, experience for the reader.
Frank Zappa expresses the same philosophy in his vast output, with varying degrees of success. His music was written for his own enjoyment, first and foremost; in that he never compromised. But at the end of the day, other people had to get something out of it too or else he would never make a living from it. As Robert Anton Wilson writes, warningly: “If you don’t instinctively want to tap your feet to it, it isn’t good music. It’s only rhetorical noise.”
The competitive world of music provided more than enough reminders for me that writing is hard work too. If I was going to succeed I had to find something that I enjoyed writing and which other people enjoyed reading. I’m still trying to perfect this process–as, I suppose, most writers do, consciously or unconsciously, throughout their careers.
So here I am in 2002, arguably still trying to recapture the thrill of a brief period when popular musicians were producing work that seemed completely novel to me, work that was accessible and intellectually stimulating at the same time–and which, most importantly perhaps, other people seemed to like. Perhaps I am still wishing, like the protagonist of “Time” that “I was back in 1981.” Certainly, it didn’t take me long to get stuck in the ghettoes of obscurity, but for one wonderfully naïve period of life, it seemed as though the world and I were on the same wavelength.
As with any childhood thrill, it’s never entirely possible to recapture it, but the motivation underlies much of what I do, and is at least as important as those early novels I read as a kid. A mix of music and sf fueled my interest in both art forms; it’s inevitable that I will continue to try to find ways to join them in my work, even if no one else notices. One of my dreams is to write a soundtrack to something I’ve written. Whether it’s the soundtrack to a movie, or a computer game, or a spoken word performance doesn’t matter; the point is that I’ll finally get a chance to use one aspect of my artistic inclination to comment on the other. I’ve no idea what might eventuate; it could be a complete disaster. But there’s value in the exercise itself.
And there’s always the goad hanging before me. The prize. That would be writing a SF novel that featured music as a key component–as essential to the plot and characterization and setting as physics in some SF novels, or chemistry, or computer science. For music is a sort of science. On one level, what we call music exists as a purely abstract set of vibrations through a medium such as a guitar string or air. These vibrations, which we call sound, are not music until they are processed and interpreted by the listener. His or her brain responds to certain intervals of pitch, which combine in series to create melodies and vertically in harmonies. Most melodies are driven by regularly repeating rhythmic patterns, usually in groups of three or four. Harmonies create pleasing or displeasing beating effects by interacting with each other; in general, the more simple the arithmetic relationship between two notes, the more pleasing the sound will be.
All of this is analyzable by science. Before we even reach the question “What does it sound like?” we have possibilities for speculation. The one time I’ve come close to using this as a plot-point is in “The Jackie Onassis Swamp-Buggy Concerto”, a short story in which the science of music is employed as a carrier wave for alien telepaths who enslave humans and race them to their deaths.
I’ve spent hours searching for inspiration, listening to crazy musical instruments like the gravikord and the pyrophone, to attempts by scientists to set DNA to music, and to elephant orchestras. If all I ever produce is “The Jackie Onassis Swamp-Buggy Concerto”, then I won’t be too sad. And if music and SF never again combine as they did in the 1980s, likewise, I won’t let myself get depressed. Music and speculation are two things that make us inherently human; they’ll always be there in one form or another. And as science begins to transcribe the harmonic vibrations of the Earth, the Sun, even the universe in the moments after the Big Bang, it becomes increasingly clear that everything around us rings with music, as Frank Zappa tried to capture with his philosophy of the Big Note.
“Music is the best,” he wrote. Aldous Huxley, perhaps, agreed: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The essence of ELO’s “Time” rings as true to me now as it did in 1981, even without the angst of teenhood to resonate with the song’s theme of strangers and strangeness.
I’ve got a ticket to the moon / The flight leaves here today from satellite 2
As the minutes roll by / what should I do? / I’ve paid the fare /
What more can I say? / It’s just one way.
The lights may be going down on the current 80s revival, but this “21st century man” is still “holding tight” to his dreams, and eagerly looks forward to new expressions of the things he loves, even if they may never be reunited so fortuitously again.
* A whiff of SF in music is enough to draw me in, but not enough on its own to keep me interested. Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” was a dud for me in exactly the same way that Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” wasn’t. Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage”, about a dystopia in which music is made illegal, was a happy combination because it had both music and SF, and humor too.