No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, November 01, 1999

The Stars Compel -- Michaela Roessner

This is a novel imbued with the scents and tastes of its setting – an alternate Renaissance Italy, where the precociously Machiavellian Caterina de'Medici (aged eleven) is threading her way through a maze of political and magical intrigues.

The viewpoint character is not Caterina herself, but Tommasso Arista, her cook. Tommasso isn't a mere kitchen boy, but an artist in his own right: apprenticed to Cellini, he is Michelangelo's lover and Caterina's confidante. His family tree includes not only prestigious cooks, but his grandmother Angelina – whose amazing recovery from a debilitating illness is popularly ascribed to her occult powers – and his dead sister Ginevra, whose spirit apparently lives on in a ruby pendant around Caterina's slender neck.

Tommasso's everyday life is drawn as a fascinating and frustrating melange of famous names, kitchen feuds, mouthwatering recipes and occult visions. His recipes are described in tantalising detail (this is most definitely not a book to read while you're dieting) and, while some of the epicurean details may seem anachronistic – were turkey and coffee well-known New World imports as early as 1530? – Roessner's research is sound enough in other areas to give verisimilitude to the more obscure details.

Tommasso understands only a little of the cosmic events unfolding around him - and so, perforce, the reader is similarly confused. It seems that Caterina is just one incarnation of a being who inhabits many planes, and who has chosen to be born into the nobility of 16th-century Florence in order to combat the forces of darkness. Caterina regains awareness of her greater self only in dreams, and during her waking hours has no knowledge of the choice she's made.

There's plenty to distract her, though. Her magical powers are gaining strength as she nears adolescence, and she is uneasily aware that a battle between good and evil is being fought through the streets of Florence and Rome. Caterina herself, Tommasso and her beloved cousin Ippolito are game pieces on the side (of course) of Good. Ranged against them are the villains of the piece – Alessandro de'Medici, ostensibly her half-brother but probably the Pope's bastard son; Lorenzaccio de'Medici, another cousin: and an array of necromancers, demons, assassins and politicians. Their aim is not clear, but indications are that it is Evil.

Those who haven't read the first in the series, The Stars Dispose, may find the plot convoluted and obscure. There is no summary of the events recounted in the previous novel: this, perhaps, is why the forces of evil seem no more than mildly unpleasant.

City of Diamond -- Jane Emerson

Proper space opera, and a nice thick book to boot. Not that I'd dream of booting it: this is one of the paperbacks which is doomed to eventual disintegration, since it's hooked me comprehensively.

The premise - which put me off when I first read the blurb - is that aliens have donated a set of three 'city-ships' (generation ships built of a strange rock-like substance) to a group of humans bound by a common religion, Redemptionism, founded by one Adrian Sawyer centuries before the beginning of this novel. Now the Cities - Diamond, Opal and Pearl - are in an uneasy state of truce as they roam the galaxy looking for (a) trade opportunities and (b) a couple of handy religious relics - which, given the futuristic setting, are likely to be far more than just trinkets.

What makes this anything other than just a run-of-the-mill space opera? Appealing characters, for one: if not a cast of thousands, there are certainly at least ten viewpoint characters, ranging from the Irish Zen-assassin Keylinn to the high-born, sheltered Iolanthe Pelagia, the Protector's new bride; from the sociopathic 'demon' (the technical term for those of a particular half-human, half-alien genetic background) Tal to this employee, the pragmatic petty criminal and social outcast Spider.

The society itself is compelling, and incredibly detailed, without the novel consisting largely of infodumps. Resources are strictly limited on a generation ship: Emerson does no more than hint at the Lottery which Spider has escaped. The Redemptionist religion is not explored in detail, but there is a hint of unpleasantly literal Catholicism: communion confers a mystical experience upon the faithful, and involves a fluid which turns out to contain real - alien - blood.

And the plot ... well, it is a space opera, and - even worse - it's the first in a series which looks unlikely ever to be finished. (Boo hiss!) Though it does stand alone - albeit with an rather unfinished aftertaste). There are enough plot strands - romantic, adventurous, political, religious and so on - to keep the action moving, and to make it difficult, at times, to discern either the key characters or the key plot strand - is it the alien relics, or the whole 'demon' thing, or the Graykey assassins?

But the entire novel is a delight. The whole 'Three Cities' setting, with its mixture of archaic practice (the Royal Hunt sounds positively prehistoric) and alien, incomprehensible technology, is in some ways more Renaissance than Regency. I can see why this was described as 'the bastard offspring of Heinlein and Heyer', though: it's a very mannered society (which is precisely why Tal is such an interesting character, an amoral individual viewed against the backdrop of an extremely structured society) - and there's a real sense of a somewhat claustrophobic space-dwelling society.

Wednesday, September 01, 1999

The Magician's Assistant -- Ann Patchett

I wish to recommend this novel to everyone. Please go and buy it. It is out in small-format paperback now: definitely not SF or fantasy, though it may be magic realism - of an odd kind, since it is set in North rather than South America, and most of the magic is the 'mundane' sort with cards and rabbits.

The novel begins with a death: the death of Parsifal, stage name of Guy Fetters. Sabine, his stage assistant and his wife (a relationship based more on mutual affection than anything else: they shared a house with Parsifal's male lover, the Vietnamese Phan, who predeceased him) is left to pick up the pieces of his life - and to encounter his family for the first time. Needless to say, the clash of Sabine's Jewish / Californian life with that of Parsifal's mother and sisters, who live an unexceptionally comfortable life in Nebraska, churns up some old secrets and creates a few new ones.

Patchett's writing is wonderfully evocative: a couple of weekends ago I was discussing the emptiness of America (compared to Britain), and by coincidence had just been reading this:

Dorothy, Albertine and Kitty, quite alive in Nebraska, eluded her entirely. In fact, the entire state of Nebraska defied imagination. Who actually lived there? … Sabine got the Rand McNally road atlas out of the trunk of her car and thumbed through to Nebraska, a page kept perfectly clean and uncreased from lack of use. Other pages showed green for hills, darker green for mountains, blue for rivers and the deep thumbprints of lakes, but Nebraska was white, a page as still as fallen snow. It was not crosshatched with roads, overrun with the hard lines of interstate systems. It was a state on which you could make lists, jot down phone numbers, draw pictures. And there, in the beating heart of nowhere, Sabine found Alliance. Alliance, Nebraska. How could he not have mentioned that? It didn't look like something you would simply forget.

That's another big part of the book: the elements of a person that you discover only when they're gone. This would, I think, be a very cathartic book to read if you had recently suffered a bereavement: either that, or it would be impossible to read as being uncomfortably accurate.

Sabine isn't really left alone, though: she dreams, and to the reader the dreams seem to be true dreams. Even better: unlike the typical fantasy-novel dreamer, she doesn't recall every detail of the dreams. Often it's only a recollection of a blue swimming pool, or a particular phrase, that stays with her on waking: but the dreams are presented as something real. She doesn't dream about Parsifal, either: she dreams long and coherent conversations with Phan, who explains that Parsifal's 'embarrassed' or 'afraid' to enter her dreams this soon. Phan, although never 'alive' in the novel, is as real - and, literally, haunting - a character as any of the others.

When Parsifal's mother visits her in LA, new perspectives open on Sabine's quiet, well-ordered life. She decides to return the visit, and finds herself in snowbound Nebraska, playing witness to the marital upheavals of his sisters. In another touch of realism, she finds out why he left by accident: everyone thinks that someone else must have told her.

The novel concludes with two very different and significant events. One of them was vaguely predictable, but isn't taken far enough to feel like a fix: the intrusion of romance, of a sort, into Sabine's emotional desert. (All sorts of interesting aspects to this one, too: but I won't give it away.) The other event is one that I think might make this magic realism: I won't be giving much away if I divulge that Sabine, always the assistant, ends up doing something that simply isn't possible in terms of stage magic, but looks very like real magic. (She learns it in a dream).

I'm looking forward to reading this novel again, although for a change this isn't because there are parts that don't make sense until the finale. Very highly recommended indeed.

Thursday, July 15, 1999

The Vintner's Luck -- Elizabeth Knox

A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed in dark rooms at midday, a young man named Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly-bottled wines to baptize the first real sorrow of his life."

If I hadn't known better, I'd have suspected Neil Gaiman of writing this novel about wine, love and angels. It's set in Burgundy, France, beginning in 1808: Sobran, sampling the new vintage and bemoaning his luck in love, encounters an angel, Xas, whose wings smell of snow. Xas promises Sobran that he'll return in exactly a year, to toast Sobran's marriage: and so a relationship is born that spans 55 years. Initially the two meet annually on the anniversary of Xas's [not altogether unsymbolic] fall into the Jodeau orchard. Xas is a worldly sort of being for an angel: he's interested in gardening, wine and - above all - humanity. At first he's unwilling to speak of his angelic life: later, as the relationship between the two changes, their conversations move from simple, rustic pleasures to theology, war and the vast distances between heaven and hell.

If the novel focussed only on Xas and Sobran, on the nature of the angel and the man and the parallel sins, or moral crimes, which they commit, it would still fascinate. Sobran's friends, relations and employers - notably the Baroness Aurora, a local landowner and Sobran's confidante - are never merely supporting characters. As well as the tale of Xas's falls - definitely plural, and not for the usual reasons - and Sobran's moral dilemma when he discovers his friend's true nature, the novel includes several murders, several romances, and the tale of a woman's descent into madness.

The Vintner's Luck is a family saga as much as it's a theological fantasy - and, as an historical novel, it's firmly rooted in its setting. Sobran goes to war for Napoleon: Aurora has a breast removed (without anaesthetic - I detected echoes of Lady Mary Wortley Montague's account of a similar operation here); new techniques are used in the vineyard: and, meanwhile, science advances ...

Thursday, July 01, 1999

Antarctic Navigation -- Elizabeth Arthur

Antarctic Navigation is the first-person narrative of Morgan Lamont, an American woman born on the 60th anniversary of Scott’s last journal entry, who became obsessed with Scott as a child. She makes a variety of odd friends during her teenage years – a boy who attends special school (though it is not evident whether this is simply due to learning difficulties or to some psychiatric condition): the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who is obsessed with storage: an eco-terrorist who works as a forest ranger: a man whose sense of balance and location is so highly developed that he is constantly travel-sick, and severely disoriented by small magnetic anomalies … All of these characters come in very useful later in her life. After her mother’s death in a snowstorm (also due to a psychiatric condition), Morgan’s grandfather – the wealthy founder of a paint company – contacts her for the first time in her life, and after some stormy overtures gives her what she’s always wanted.

This is one of those novels which, rather irritatingly, begins with the protagonist looking back on the events which led her to where she is now, so you know where she ends up. (This authorial omniscience detracts, inevitably, from some of the crises through which Morgan drags herself and her allies). I also think that Elizabeth Arthur could have written a book about half the length of this one without omitting much of import. She’s keen on extended metaphors – albeit often fascinating ones – and will blithely devote an entire chapter to a discussion of a physics experiment, setting us up for a single image which works, and sticks. Arthur also spends a lot of time talking about ideas in classical Greek philosophy, most notably the concept of arete, or a ‘quality of excellence’. Morgan’s father died while writing a book on architecture, so there’s plenty of architecture. Naturally, too, she has done her research on Antarctic history: Wilson, Oates, Bowers and the whole crew of them are here, as well as some people, and events, that I haven’t yet come across elsewhere. That wealth of discursive detail is an aspect of this book that I find very appealing, but it does add to the wordage and tonnage: this is, quite literally, a weighty tome, almost Victorian in its scope and digression. (It’s a very good read, too, though sometimes one can’t help wishing she would just get on with it.)

Arthur – or shall we say ‘Morgan’, so as not to fall into the Fatal Trap of confusing author and character, as some might – is keen on Scott. Morgan reads the Huntford book [The Last Place on Earth - very pro-Scott] (it’s not named, but the internal chronology and a couple of remarks indicate that this is the book) and immediately begins to argue Scott’s case. She also reads Scott’s wife’s autobiography, and finds herself strangely repelled by Kathleen Scott and her agenda. Indeed, she is rather jealous of the woman.

What Morgan wants to do is to prove that Scott could have succeeded: that it was bad luck, rather than poor planning: that it wasn’t just because Scott refused to kill his dogs (and this is a theme she keeps returning to: that Amundsen was some sort of sadist for using and killing dogs, and that Scott was sane and kind. I have a feeling that, while Shackleton was a cat person, Morgan Lamont is a dog person. Does this explain anything? Almost certainly not.). Morgan describes Scott as "a person of great intellectual curiosity, who had to overcome a natural inclination to laziness, and who found himself pulling a sledge across 1800 miles of ice, because he had not wanted to kill other intelligent animals." Because of this less-than-pragmatic approach to the use of animals, Morgan is also relieved that recreating Scott’s expedition won’t involve using fur ‘except for the mittens, boots and sleeping bags’ – though she remains silently on why it should matter what you use the fur for, once you’ve killed its original owner to get it. In fact, the expedition end up using fake fur for mittens etc, which is not exactly historically accurate.

Some of her historical asides simply don’t add up, too, and I’m unsure who to believe. Huntford asserts that Scott bought his butter in Denmark: Arthur has "we bought New Zealand butter, just as they had"

Another new concept, to me, was that of Antarctica as the Counterweight continent – the idea, dating from Classical Greece, that there must be a southern landmass, to balance the weight of all that known land.

Arthur, trying to describe the first sight on Antarctica, resorts to ‘the language of a chemist’, and remarks that Dr Wilson, on Scott’s expedition, did the same. I hadn’t known that: but I do know where I’ve seen the trick before, which is in Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, when Sax is trying to describe the many shades of purple through which the sky passes at sunset. Nothing new under the sun… and, of course, Robinson would have read Wilson’s journals, assuming that he was at all interested in matters Antarctic before getting over there on the Writers’ and Artists’ Programme. [see my review of Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica, published a year after Antarctic Navigation]

I also learnt a lot about the United States Antarctic Program: for example, the list of medical conditions that disqualify someone (even a Proper Scientist) from being employed in Antarctica. I can understand AIDS, hepatitis, pregnancy … but epilepsy? Thyroid problems? Asthma? Grrr. Guess I won’t be going as a US employee, then. All these conditions are, as Arthur points out, treatable: I’m allowed to drive (not that I can) despite being classified as epileptic, because I have not had an ‘episode’ for over two years (actually nearer four – and nothing to do with the lousy medication, either). I can certainly treat my asthma: the Antarctic Program, incidentally, doesn’t differentiate between allergy-type asthma and other types, so even someone with hayfever can be excluded on that ground, despite the remarkable lack of pollen on the Ice.

The Americans aren’t, or weren’t, kind to their Antarctic workers: while those of other nationalities could expect to see something of the continent (and were allotted helicopter time as a matter of course), the Americans were forbidden even to venture onto the sea ice. (Morgan gets deported from Antarctica for an illicit excursion to Scott’s hut). One of the characters explains this with what I found a very interesting theory: that Americans, far from being pioneers, are terrified of the wilderness, and hate the idea of being a loser or a failure. Scott was a loser, ergo not a hero. And why are Americans scared of failure? According to this character, because they are all descended from dismal failures:

Wherever they came from – Scotland or Ireland, Germany or Poland – they had failed and they had nothing left to lose. They had the clothes on their backs, one potato, and a pocket handkerchief. In another minute, if they stayed where they were, they were going to die. So … they climbed aboard some ship .. once they got there they found a huge bloody wilderness, worse than anything they could have imagined.

Arthur, among her other strengths, has an eye for travel writing: there are episodes that remind me of Jan Morris, and others that remind me of Bill Bryson. For example, the much-delayed flight from Christchurch to McMurdo Base:

… the drug-sniffing Labrador was brought out from somewhere to inspect us again. he took his job just as seriously this time as he had the last, because he was a Navy dog, and he understood that his masters were absolutely convinced that someone on this flight had managed to pick up some drugs while on a secured quarterdeck, completely surrounded by military policemen.

Morgan doesn’t come across as a woman, even when in love. Imagining conversations with the not-quite-ghost members of Scott’s expedition, she observes that Cherry-Garrard didn’t particularly like women.

But I wasn’t a woman when I was there. I wasn’t a man, either. I was a human being as they were, every one of them. The advantage of an all-male company in that age which had brought them to the Antarctic was that it had allowed men to act like whole human beings.

Seems a drastic remedy …

Morgan Lamont does become more fallible – and perhaps more likeable – after an encounter with an Argentinean male feminist. (She also becomes more womanly). And she certainly ends up following in Scott's footsteps: the expedition is evidence of a fallibility, stubbornness, and even stupidity, that's reminiscent of Scott as portrayed by Huntford. Morgan makes mistakes – big ones – and suffers for them: unfortunately, so do some of her companions.

She's so in love with the idea of Scott as martyr that it takes an apparent visitation from the ghost of Scott to persuade her to save her own life. She sees Scott as almost a Christ-figure, dying for others and suffering without complaint, "pulling behind them on their sledges the weight of Empire". This ties in neatly with her personal feelings of guilt, as news of the Gulf War reaches Antarctica and she realises that her expedition is funded by Lamont Paints, who made their money by supplying the US Navy with paint. "I knew now what I was dragging behind me." This crisis of conscience, coupled with the knowledge that she has endangered her companions by insisting on authenticity (an insistence that goes by the board on the first day of the expedition, but it's too late to change very much by then), drives Morgan into a severe depression – sheer self-indulgence, when one is part of a team crossing one of the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth. She is saved by the ghost, or spirit, or hallucination of Scott – the only one of his expedition whom she had never felt was somehow present in the hut – who appears from the blizzard to tell her, basically, to get a grip and obey him.

I have mixed feelings about Morgan Lamont. In some ways she's a strong woman looking for someone (probably male) to lead her. She enthuses about the other female member of the expedition – Gronya, the storage fanatic – but doesn't actually say very much about her, or report much of her speech. When another member of the expedition develops a, potentially disruptive, crush on Gronya, we hear a lot about his feelings, but nothing of hers. Morgan is also a cheat, and guilty – as charged, above – of Scott-like stupidity. She seems to treat the whole thing as a game, or a dramatic presentation, although all their lives depend on her actions.

In some ways Arthur is rewriting and recasting Scott's expedition (I had fun trying to decide which of her characters matched up with the Last Five from Scott's polar trip), and exploring how it might have been different, and what motivated Scott. Reading Antarctic Navigation as a simple travel narrative would be a big mistake: reading it as an exploration of the whole Scott myth is far more interesting. The spiritual and supernatural elements reminded me of that bit in The Waste Land about 'Who is the third who walks always beside you?'.

There are some beautiful images in this novel, and some profound philosophy. I don't like Morgan Lamont, but I am prepared to accept that without her this novel would not work. I am still not convinced, though, that "the planet spins faster as the two Poles than it spins anywhere else on Earth", or that "someday the South Pole would be the place where the Earth stopped spinning". I'll grant some poetic truth … but I'm not sure that 'truth = beauty \ beauty = truth' is a valid argument when it comes to science.

Tuesday, June 01, 1999

Ship Fever -- Andrea Barrett

A collection of short stories which share the love of science - and vice versa - as their theme. It would have been easy for this to be a pretentious sort of book: lots of strained metaphors and parables, a few famous scientists behaving in uneasily human fashion, etc. Instead, each story contains, in miniature, the sort of human interest, intelligence and passion which appeal to me in novels such as The Vintner's Luck (Elizabeth Knox, 1999).

Barrett doesn't focus on the moments of discovery, or the great scientists of the past: she is more concerned with those who fail, or those who never try, or - in one story - those who have effectively completed their life's work and are waiting to die.

The stories ... well, this sentence began 'especially worthy of mention' until I found myself listing the entire contents of the collection. I'll stick to describing and discussing those that made most impact on me.

'Birds without Feet' is the story of Alec, a nineteenth-century naturalist who follows in the footsteps of Alfred Wallace, hunting and killing and stuffing birds and animals, mourning each death but telling himself it is in the name of science. Gradually he can no longer deny that the deaths are for nothing; that he will never experience the flash of insight, the new discovery, which could justify the slaughter. Approaching nature passionately rather than intellectually, he's too caught up with detail to be a theorist, 'caught like a fly in the richness around him, drowning in detail'. Unlike his role models, he is not serving a 'greater good', but a misplaced and unrealistic ambition, to be like them: to be them.

In 'The English Pupil', Linnaeus, victim of several strokes and senility, instructs his coachman to take him out of the city to his old house. Night and snow are falling: somewhere, vaguely, he thinks that someone might be wondering where he is. The man who developed a system of nomenclature that was widely used even within his lifetime cannot remember the fates or names of his dead friends, or of the young man - the English pupil - who comes with Linnaeus' daughter to take him home. Poignant and thoughtful: an encapsulated 'life of Linnaeus' in fragments, as recalled by an old, sick man on a snowy night.

I was also rather taken with 'Rare Bird', in which spinster Sarah Anne writes, with increasing frustration, to Linnaeus, contradicting his theory that swallows winter underwater, in frozen ponds and rivers. The advent of a widow, also interested in natural philosophy, encourages her to experiment by forcing a swallow to 'hibernate' (and Barrett could have forced the parallel with witches, 'if it dies it was innocent'). Upon fishing out the drowned bird, she realises that something must change - and flees with her friend the widow. Once her brother realises that she's gone, he believes that she's 'flown to other climes': in fact, her fate is never made clear, although her brother behaves as though his theory is a fact. A remarkably understated and evocative story: a clear and intelligent perspective on what it meant to be an eighteenth-century woman, even a wealthy one, with scientific ambitions.

'The Behaviour of the Hawkweeds' brings together several tales. Antonia has inherited a letter drafted by Mendel, dealing with genetics: Mendel had been misled by a fellow scientist into investigating heredity in the hawkweeds, which don't display the same straightforward lines of inheritance as do peas. The letter, passed to her by her grandfather, becomes a kind of dowry in her marriage to Richard, a present-day - rather mediocre - geneticist. What he never thinks to ask her is how she came to possess the letter. A young man to whom she is attracted asks that question: Antonia tells the story her way rather than her husband's, just for once, and thus betrays her husband's pride.

I can't do that story justice by simply describing it: there are so many facets to the tale. The rivalry between the Czech immigrants (Antonia's family) and the Germans (a man killed by Antonia's grandfather, leading to her possession of the letter): the laws of genetics, embodied in Antonia's sixth toe which her children don't show, but which appears once more in her grandchild: the pettiness of scientific research, both in Mendel's time and in the mild departmental politics between Richard and the younger scientist ...

All life is here.

Thursday, April 01, 1999

Medea -- Christa Wolf

The scene can be set by the quotation from Elisabeth Lenk which Wolf uses as introduction:

Achronism is not the inconsequential juxtaposition of epochs, but rather their interpenetration, like the telescoping legs of a tripod, a series of tapering structures. Since it’s quite far from one end to the other, they can be opened out like an accordion; but they can also be stacked inside one another like Russian dolls, for the walls around time-periods are extremely close to one another. The people of other centuries hear our phonographs blaring, and through the walls of time we see them raising their hands towards the deliciously prepared meal.

Margaret Atwood, in her Introduction, adds that ‘this tale is about Medea, but it is also about us… At one moment we’re identifying the dark-skinned Colchians with, perhaps, the Turks in Germany … at another, we seem to be in the atmosphere of distrust and betrayal that characterised the collapse of the East German hegemony."

The novel is told in a number of different voices. There’s Medea herself: Jason, who’s a bluff piratical type, confused about his own story and often in the forest when it comes to Medea: Agameda, Medea’s former protégé who has turned against her: Akamas, the First Astronomer of Corinth: Glauce, Jason’s epileptic intended wife: and Leukon, the Second Astronomer, and Medea’s lover. Each is a distinct voice, with mannerisms and perspectives that add to the tale: each offers a different view of Medea herself, from her own pragmatic description to Jason’s superstitious awe.

This is a solid, realistic portrayal of a Bronze Age woman in the middle of her own myth. Wolf's Medea is a sensible and politically-astute individual, aware of the machinations against her, but unable to prevent the escalation of her doom. There's no specific magic, although some religious rituals are described: nothing spooky or mad about Medea herself, and the more negative aspects of the myth (killed her brother, killed her father, killed her children, killed Jason's new wife) are not so much discounted as explained, in the most reasonable and unsensational of ways. Effectively, the myth that grew up around Medea (who was almost certainly a real person: it's one of the oldest myths around, and even Homer referred to it as ancient) is portrayed as propaganda.

Medea is well aware that she lives at the point where history becomes myth:

Early in the crossing some of the men began to … go on about how fraught with peril our departure had been, about swells and rough seas, and about their own courage and good judgement, by virtue of which all the women and children had made it safely on board. If our situation worsens, their legend-spinning will get completely out of hand, and objections based on fact will be futile. That is, if there are still such things as facts, after all these years.

Wolf's writing, even in translation, is spare and evocative:

It was a bright, transparent day in early summer, it was the hour when the light turns into darkness almost without transition, but not before summoning up one last effort of brightness that can still swell my heart though I have been accustomed to it since my childhood.

I have had a soft spot for Medea ever since I read her story in one of those 'Greek Myths for Kiddies' anthologies, around the age of six or seven. Christine de Pisan, in The Book of the City of Ladies (sadly, no copy to hand, but it's a wonderful medieval apologia for women in history from Eve onwards), portrays Medea as a good mother who does all those nasty things for her babbies. Cherubini's opera stresses the maternal aspect, too, but isn't afraid to demonise her. Somewhere behind all those myths there once lived a real person: I'm sure of it, or how did they last so long?

Monday, March 01, 1999

The Music of the Spheres: Classical Music and Science Fiction

This article, which is © Tanya Brown (1999) and may not be used without permission from the author, first appeared in Vector #204, March/April 1999. Vector is the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association

This article focuses on written SF, rather than the cinema. That serendipitous coupling of Strauss and space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Kubrick, 1968: featuring Richard Strauss’ 1896 Also Sprach Zarathustra) won’t be discussed here. Neither will Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Spielberg, 1977), in which a simple five-note motif becomes a means of communicating with aliens. Portrayals of future music are also omitted, such as the alien diva’s rendition of the 'Mad Scene' from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) in The Fifth Element (dir. Besson, 1997). Music, like special effects, is limited by the technology available when the film is made: written SF is limited in its effects only by the imagination of the reader. Besson’s opera singer may have blue skin and more than the usual number of limbs, but her voice remains that of the Albanian soprano Inva Mulla Tchako.
Yet these films mirror three of the ways in which science fiction writers treat music. There is the use of the music of the past to illuminate a vision of the future (2001): the exploration of what music might become, given different bodies and minds (The Fifth Element): and how music might become a way of communication when language proves inadequate (Close Encounters).
Any definition of a field as broad as classical music – or science fiction – must include or exclude particular works on a relatively arbitrary basis. The lines between classical music, progressive rock and new age music are becoming increasingly blurred, with the advent of electronic amplification and the increasing tendency of rock musicians to compose works combining classical techniques and instruments with those used in rock music. The ‘new age’ label is applied to a multitude of musical sub-genres: contemporary composers are often included, as are several progressive rock groups who focus primarily on instrumental music. The latter – while often using science-fictional themes as inspiration, and sounding ethereal and other-worldly – can’t be said to be playing classical music: there is nothing inherently classical about instrumental pieces, however long or traditionally-constructed.
For this article, ‘classical music’ is defined as the existing classical canon, and the music which will occupy that niche in the future – music that, in Robert Silverberg’s ‘Gianni’ (1981: coll. The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party, 1984) is defined as ‘serious music that belonged only to an elite and [is] played merely on formal occasions’. To this definition I would add, ‘music from the Western tradition that is regularly performed for decades or centuries’: most of the stories surveyed here assume that classical music will still be played in the future.
This is a survey rather than an in-depth critical study: it covers only a fraction of SF references to classical music. (‘Science fiction’, for the purpose of this article, excludes fantasy or horror – although fantasy novels are often permeated with music.) The exchange of ideas is not one-sided: there is also an overview of some of the ways in which classical music has used science-fictional themes.

Science Fiction in Classical Music
Science fiction is primarily a twentieth-century genre, and thus the majority of the classical canon predates it. Additionally, it’s difficult to ascribe science fictional themes directly to programme music (music that is intended to suggest a series of images or moods). James Blish, in The Tale that Wags the God (ed. Chauvin, 1987) deplores the idea that a human might comprehend alien music. Discussing Thomas Wilson’s 1952 story, ‘The Face of the Enemy’, he observes that:
"The account in the story makes it very clear that this is program music; it appears to be a historical composition describing how one tribe triumphed over another and how beautiful towers arose thereafter. All this comes very clearly to the hero’s mind, despite the fact that even the most sophisticated Terrestrial music lover, encountering a piece of Terrestrial program music for the first time, will be very lucky if he can tell you whether it describes a battle or a love affair."
Even when the title of a piece indicates some science-fictional connection, it’s not easy to distinguish any direct relation between the music and its title.
Traditional orchestral music based on science fictional themes is rare: however, such themes are not entirely absent from the concert hall. Purists would deny David Bedford a place in the classical canon, since the electric guitar, which features largely in many of his works, has not yet been assimilated into the classical orchestra. Yet Bedford’s compositions – including Tentacles of the Dark Nebula (1975), from Arthur C. Clarke’s story ‘Transience’ (1949), and Jack of Shadows (1973, based on Roger Zelazny’s 1971 novel of the same name) – are generally played in symphony halls, rather than rock venues, and use the paradigms and structures of orchestral music.
Generally, however, orchestral music seldom refers explicitly to science fiction. An exception is Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony (1993), a ‘musical response to the myth of Superman’; each movement of the symphony explores a different aspect of the story, from ‘Krypton’ to ‘Red Cape Tango’. (As a listener, I found that the music evoked the story only when I was aware of the title of each movement). And, of course, there is the ever-increasing body of orchestral music composed as soundtracks to science fiction films.

SF has made a number of predictions concerning musical technology, some of which have already been fulfilled: for example, Charles Harness’ 1953 novella The Rose features a programmable synthesiser. Increasingly, too, musicians are devising new – almost science-fictional – ways in which to compose and perform music. Stephen Taylor, a contemporary American composer, integrates Andrew Yee’s recordings of the sound waves of solar oscillations into his music. Professor Todd Machover (of whom more below) is part of MIT’s Media Lab, which produces new musical instruments using the latest technology. Machover’s projects include the Conducting Jacket – which measures the wearer’s movements and ‘gives more complete, and more anticipatory, views of gestural control’ – and ‘squeezable music’, a new generation of musical ‘interfaces’ that will give direct tactile control over complex sound systems.
Stockhausen’s work on musical theory, if not his music, indicates an awareness of science fiction. In Towards a Cosmic Music (1989) he writes of his Klavierstucke (1952 onwards), an ongoing group of compositions for piano, as ‘small musical spaceships and time machines’. Stockhausen invites the actively participating listener to ‘empathise with temporal and spatial experiences of other living beings which live faster or slower, narrower or wider than human beings (insects, birds, fish, plants, trees, clouds, etc.)’. Stockhausen seems to hold the view that music can be a means of communication with, or comprehension of, non-human intelligences. Whether his theories are evident in his music is a question that is, fortunately, beyond the scope of this article. The inability of many humans to understand Stockhausen’s music does not bode well for any aliens who may be listening.

There are a growing number of science fiction operas. Science fiction works often have a distinct narrator or protagonist, while opera plots tend to be in the third-person, with characters who take it in turns to describe what is happening. However, the dramatic gestures and improbable plots of opera are comparable in scale to the more grandiose works of SF. This wasn’t lost on a group of fans who, in 1990, approached the New York Metropolitan Opera with the idea of staging an opera based on Star Trek for the 25th anniversary of the show in 1991. Sadly, the project was doomed: it takes much longer than a year to write, rehearse and produce a new opera.
The first opera to deal with an SF theme was probably Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna (‘The World on the Moon’), composed in 1777. It’s an allegory, rather than a literal account of space travel: they don’t actually get to the moon. However, it shows an early awareness of extraterrestrial themes in the world of classical music.
Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (‘The Tales of Hoffman’, 1880) includes an automaton, Olympia, who dances and sings marvellously (if you like French operetta) but eventually malfunctions and is destroyed. Another of Offenbach’s operas is La Voyage dans la Lune (1875), the plot of which drew heavily from Jules Verne’s De la Terre á la Lune (‘From the Earth to the Moon’, 1865).
Twentieth-century operas with science-fictional themes are more abundant, perhaps because of the increased popularity of science fiction and the explosion of the pulp SF market in the USA. Janácek’s Vêk Makropulos (‘The Makropolous Case’, 1925) is based on a story by Karel Capek – inventor of the word ‘robot’ – about an immortal opera singer who is three hundred years old. In Výlety pana Broucka (‘Mr. Broucek’s Journey’, 1920), drunkard Broucek dreams of a trip to the Moon, whose inhabitants are effete and pretentious creatures. They live for Art and nourish themselves by sniffing flowers.
The science fiction opera – that is, opera as a work of science fiction in its own right – began to flourish in the 1950s. A notable example is Blomdahl’s Aniara (1959), based on the poem by Harry Martinson. A spaceship abandons a post-apocalyptic Earth to colonise Mars: a fault develops and the ship goes off course, doomed to drift forever. Aniara, an eclectic piece including taped electronic music and combining modernist twelve-tone techniques with neo-Romantic orchestration, is still performed regularly.
Gian Carlo Menotti’s Help, Help, the Globolinks! (1968) is a children’s opera about alien invasion, in which the power of music becomes a potent weapon against the Globolinks. Musical instruments are the only defence against the aliens, who can penetrate walls and doors, but are frightened and repulsed by the children’s music.
Many operas are based upon best-selling novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), for example, has inspired at least four operas. The most recent of these is a version by Libby Larsen, which was named by USA Today as one of the eight best classical music events of 1990. Larsen is no stranger to science fiction: she has also composed an opera based on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), and has been rumoured to be considering an opera based on an Ursula Le Guin novel. Philip Glass has composed two operas with librettos by Doris Lessing, from her own novels. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) and The Marriage of Zones Three, Four and Five (1997). The latter (also a source for the American composer Paul Barker) was produced by English National Opera in 1997, to mixed reviews.
There are a number of other science-fiction operas which are not based on existing works: however, these plots are seldom novel or thought-provoking. The Games (Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, 1983) is set on board a generation starship, where children’s games have acquired a ritual status. Paul Dresher and Rinded Eckert’s Power Failure (1989) tells the story of a man who has spent his entire wealth on the development and production of an immortality machine: as he is about to use it, a power failure traps him, along with various downtrodden employees, in his underground laboratory. Rigel-9 (David Bedford, 1985) shows that even the involvement of as august a personage as Le Guin, who wrote the libretto, does not elevate the plot. It deals with that staple of science fiction, a group of spacemen alone on a strange planet: only one is sensitive enough to perceive the alien city. While these tales may be strange and wonderful to the average opera-goer (who, given many traditional opera plots, must have learnt to suspend disbelief), readers familiar with science fiction may well find them simplistic.
The idea of alien intervention, while no longer specifically a science-fictional theme – it has become part of mainstream culture – has been aired in several operas. Sir Michael Tippett’s New Year (1988), features three alien visitors. The computer genius Merlin, the space pilot Pelegrin and their female commander Regan appear in a space ship from ‘Nowhere’ and ‘Tomorrow’ to change the lives of a corresponding trio from ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Today’. Tippett also updates the idea of the deus ex machina in The Ice Break (1976) by introducing an alien visitor, rather than a god or a ghost, to resolve the plot.
Perhaps the most innovative use of a science-fiction text in opera is Todd Machover’s VALIS (1987). Based on the novel by Philip K Dick, the opera recounts the story of Dick’s alter ego, Horselover Fat. The VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) experience, which may be a technological experiment, a nervous breakdown, or a true spiritual experience, is portrayed via electronic music, song and spoken text. Machover, as mentioned above, is also active in the field of musical technology: VALIS represents the first use of hyperinstruments, which use computers to augment natural musical expression. The entire ‘orchestra’ for VALIS consisted of two instruments, a hyperkeyboard and a hyperpercussion.

Classical Music in Science Fiction:
It has become almost a cliché to have the protagonist of a science fiction text listening to the ancient, obscure music of some twentieth-century band. Less frequently – although perhaps more credibly – such a character relaxes to the strains of Beethoven or Mozart, whose music has already lasted ten times longer than that of Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. Such cultural references seldom enhance the plot: when the reference is to a classical piece, it often fails to give any impression except that of pretentiousness. Kim Stanley Robinson, in Icehenge (1984), describes the rings of Saturn as ‘like the music that Beethoven might have written had he ever seen the sea.’
Robinson, though, can be forgiven on the basis of his description of a radiation storm in Red Mars (1992): like a masterly film director, he provides as a soundtrack the ‘Storm’ movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808). Arkady, who puts the recording over the PA system, is using music as a sort of social control. The idea of the power of music to soothe, or to excite, dates back to Ancient Greece: Robinson returns to it repeatedly, and other authors have explored it with varying degrees of success.
All too often, the classical music that future listeners cherish dates from well before the author’s time. That music might be a way of indicating a particular cultural context, or of evoking a specific mood or image. The better-known a work or composer is, of course, the more chance the reader has of recognising the reference – and of believing that the person or the music will be remembered in the future. But it can’t be assumed that the classical canon will remain fixed. Arthur C. Clarke, in The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) is one of the few science fiction writers to assume the integration of today’s experimental music into the artistic mainstream. The canon implied in Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness (1985) seems to skip from Mussorgsky to composers in our future, the past of the novel.
Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are more likely than any other composers to be mentioned in science fiction. Their music is ubiquitous today, and seems likely to last. Fashions change, though, even in classical music: Mozart was seldom heard in nineteenth-century England, while Telemann (who wrote more music than any other composer) seems out of favour with contemporary concert programmers. Perhaps there is something so timeless about the music of the Great Three that it will remain popular and accessible in the future: conversely, it may be the writers’ prejudices, rather than their predictions, which elevate these three to immortality.

If the writer is referring to a particular composer or musician – especially in alternate history and time-travel stories – the historical individual might stand as a cipher for the time or place in which he flourished. Some of the possibilities are explored in three stories that resurrect famous composers. While these stories may seem at first to include the musical aspects simply as background, they all ask questions about the role of art – in this case, music – in the life of the composer.
‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ (1984), by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, has spawned many imitations. An instance of the eighteenth century has been opened up for commercial enterprise, and a young Mozart is introduced to recordings of the music that another version of himself will have written. He’s awed – and ambitious, especially when he realises that, in some way, his future has already happened. "History says I’m going to be dead in fifteen years! I don’t want to die in this dump! I want that car and that recording studio!" Influenced by the contemporary music brought back from Realtime, his style changes: eventually his songs are sent back up the line, and he tops the Billboard charts. In a twist of the classic ‘interference’ time travel story, Mozart emigrates from his own time with neither a backward glance nor a Requiem Mass. The music of that other Mozart, presumably, still exists in the time to which he travels, but it will never be written in the time that he leaves.
Silverberg deals with a similar theme in ‘Gianni’. The eighteenth-century composer Pergolesi is ‘time-scooped’ from the year 1736, just 18 days before his death – thus having written all the music that he was ever to write – and transported to 2008. He is brought rapidly up to date on the evolution of music since his time and, eschewing classical music altogether, joins an ‘overload’ band. Accused of turning his back on ‘serious’ music, he says, ‘I starved to death composing that music… I renounce nothing. I merely transform.’ Unlike Sterling’s Mozart, however, he doesn’t cheat death: he dies of a drug overdose. ‘Self-destructive is as self-destructive does, and a change of scenery doesn’t alter the case’. Interestingly, this story (1981) predates ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’.
The two pieces, taken together, give alternate versions of a classic time-travel dilemma: can the past – or an individual’s fate – be changed? Both stories also pose the question of whether a historical personage is rooted in their own time and culture. You can take a man out of the 18th century, but can you take the 18th century out of the man?
‘A Work of Art’ by James Blish (1956: coll. The Best Science Fiction Stories of James Blish, 1973) – who was also a composer, and was working on a study of Strauss’ operas – recreates Richard Strauss in the year 2161. Strauss (composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra) has been dead for 212 years. He has been resurrected to write an opera, and finds the music flowing as he remembers it doing in his previous life. There is wild applause at the opera’s premiere: but it isn’t for the music. Barkun Kris, the mind sculptor, has not resurrected Strauss after all. Instead, he has recreated the composer’s personality in the mind of Jerom Busch, a man with no musical talent at all. ‘Strauss’, however, knows enough to recognise – unlike the audience – that the music he’s written is unoriginal and uninspired. "He need not tell Dr. Kris that the ‘Strauss’ he had created was as empty of genius as a hollow gourd. The joke would always be on the sculptor, who was incapable of hearing the hollowness of the music." Blish illustrates the uniqueness of genius and the nature of art: the Frankenstein-like scientist cannot recreate Strauss’ creativity, for it is not amenable to scientific law. Dr. Kris doesn’t recognise the subjective worth of what he has created, and is only interested in the objective, scientific results.
Sterling, Silverberg and Blish all focus upon composers, almost to the exclusion of the music they composed. Sterling’s Mozart hasn’t written the music for which Mozart is famous. Blish’s Strauss, an empty husk of the original, produces empty music. Pergolesi, in the Silverberg story, ends up performing music quite different to that for which he is known, although the narrator constantly reminds him of the glory of his famous Stabat Mater.
In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), Douglas Adams turns the situation on its head: what about a world in which a composer and his music don’t exist? Richard MacDuff programs computers, trying to find the formula that will decode the music that he believes is inherent in naturally-occurring number sequences, such as those derived from the flight of swallows. He finds himself aboard an alien spaceship, listening to the ‘music of life itself’, the sounds of Earth recorded and transformed by the ship’s computers. One tune stays in his mind, and he is most disconcerted to hear it again back on Earth. "Who wrote it?" he asks. "Bach." Richard’s never heard of Bach: until this moment, he has been living in a world in which Bach’s music did not exist. Only by the intervention of Reg, a slightly mad professor with a time machine, has the ‘tiniest scrap’ of the music he heard on the spaceship been saved – and attributed to a historical figure who had never written any music of his own.

When the reader must supply contextual information to understand a story, the point may be lost. An example is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s masterful, if obscure, ‘The Fellini Beggar’ (1975: coll. Cautionary Tales, 1978). A reporter visits a former actor – now a beggar – who lives alone near the ruins of the Vatican with a vast collection of opera scores. His payment for playing a harrowing, life-threatening film role was Puccini’s own score of Turandot (1926), which the composer was working on when he died. The score for which the beggar almost died contains Puccini’s version of the last scene of the opera, which is now lost. Yarbro suggests that the composer’s ending was quite different to the happy resolution supplied by his musical executor: thus, the beggar possesses the only true version – an important artistic relic, presently lost but perhaps to be recovered. The reporter – echoing, I suspect, most readers – fails to appreciate the significance of this: "You could have gone to the library, or bought it!"
That tale ultimately stands, or falls, on the reader’s comprehension of the riddle. More accessible is Yarbro’s ‘Un Bel Di’ (1973: coll. Cautionary Tales, 1978), which translates the plot of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) to another planet. This Butterfly is an asexual alien who is assigned to a brutal diplomat for his pleasure: as in the opera, he returns to his home, leaving Butterfly determined to wait for the ‘fine day’ on which he will return. This story doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the opera’s plot: it supplies a substantially different setting for a classic tragedy, which is effective in itself rather than as a product of a particular cultural context. The tale is tragic even if the reader doesn’t recognise its source.
Julian May uses operatic themes in several of her novels, referring both to music and to plot. In Jack the Bodiless (1991) she explores some of the ways in which the performance of music might change in the future. The novel features a ‘metapsychically operant’ coloratura soprano, Teresa Kendall: "the disparagers of her legend like to hint that the voice’s effect was a mere psychocreative illusion, a mesmerising of the audience by the mindpower of the singer", though her recordings prove otherwise. Snowbound in a log cabin, Teresa performs Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden (1882), complete with psychically-created visual and emotional projections that bring the music, and the scenes, to life.
Anne McCaffrey, a former opera singer and producer, is also aware of the possibilities of the human voice. Helda, in The Ship Who Sang (1969), is a cyborg, grafted into a spaceship which becomes an extension of her senses. Given this technology she finds herself able to sing – not just in the traditionally female soprano and alto ranges, but also tenor and bass. Although she can never perform on a stage, her magnificent voice transcends the limitations of the human body. Her voice later becomes a weapon: with superhuman vocal control, she drives another ship-person to madness and death.
The alteration of the human body opens up a potential multitude of new musical skills. Lois McMaster Bujold’s quaddies – humans genetically engineered to live in freefall, with four equally dextrous ‘hands’ – can play a ‘double dulcimer’ (‘Labyrinth’: coll. Borders of Infinity, 1989). The Einstein Intersection (Samuel Delany, 1969) introduces a mutant who plays a twenty-hole flute with both hands and both feet. Aliens, of course – not being limited to human physiology – may play a variety of improbable instruments, requiring multiple limbs or mouths.
Conversely, there may be a return to old techniques, albeit by different methods. For over two hundred years, the castrato voice – that of a male castrated at puberty to preserve his voice – was regarded as the height of vocal achievement. This practice has fallen into disfavour for moral and ethical reasons. In The Alteration (1976), Kingsley Amis posits a parallel twentieth century in which the Reformation, and associated social reforms, never happened: castration is still performed on promising boy sopranos, such as the protagonist Hubert Anvil.
Orson Scott Card – himself a singer – also reinvents the castrati. Songmaster (1980) tells the story of one such figure. Ansset is raised in the Songhouse, where he is ‘castrated’ by means of drugs and hormones – thus deprived, unlike the original castrati, of the possibility of any sexual relationship. Ansset’s voice is fantastically affecting; it can induce ecstasy or self-destruction in his listeners. The power of that voice almost destroys the singer: finally, he is reduced to the role of a servant, and socially silenced lest his songs affect others.
Music can be dangerous, both to the individual (as with Ansset and Helda) and to society. Lloyd Biggle Jr, a composer and musicologist at the University of Michigan, has dealt with the social power of music in several works. ‘The Tunesmith’ (1957: coll. The Metallic Muse, 1972) is set in a world dominated by advertising music. Erlin Baque finds ways to play his own compositions, which do not extol the virtues of any product, and which are much longer than the jingles commissioned by advertisers. The ‘new music’ is tremendously popular, and inspires others to compose and perform classical music. New concert halls are erected, and opera is broadcast live for the first time in two centuries. Baque hears none of it: through the machinations of an enemy, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labour on Ganymede. Finally paroled, a deaf old man with mangled hands, he takes pride in the cultural renaissance he has wrought.
In The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (Biggle, 1968) a society undergoes a more traditional revolution. Forzon is a Cultural Survey officer who is sent to Kurr, a planet where prowess in the harp-like torril is greatly prized. Unfortunately the King’s punishment for criminals is amputation of an arm. Appalled by social conditions, and angered by the sentencing of a particularly fine musician, Forzon introduces the trumpet – an instrument that can literally be played single-handed. Thus empowered, an army of ex-musicians and other ‘criminals’ marches on the capital and overthrows the corrupt regime.
The theme of the mutilated musician surfaces again in Orson Scott Card’s ‘Unaccompanied Sonata’ (1979: coll. Unaccompanied Sonata, 1981). In a pastoral future, talented composers live in isolation, forbidden to hear any other music lest it taint their own compositions. Christian Haroldsen is given a recording of Bach, and the Watchers realise from his sudden avoidance of anything Bach-like that his music has become ‘polluted’. First he is taken away from his Instrument: unable to live without music, he plays piano in a bar. The Watcher hunts him down and cuts off his fingers. Christian joins a road construction team, but is heard singing: the Watcher returns and makes him dumb. For many years, he is a Watcher himself: but finally, in retirement, he hears a street corner band singing one of the songs he wrote. Despite his mutilations, his music has survived and will be remembered: genius, Card seems to be arguing, cannot be suppressed or destroyed.

Whether music will be a part of the future, as it is part of past and present, is another question that has been addressed in science fiction. Music can be suppressed – as in Orwell’s 1984 (1948), where music is a vehicle for propaganda – and it can be transformed to something that is not recognisably music. J. G. Ballard’s 1960 story, ‘The Sound Sweep’ (coll. The Four-Dimensional Nightmare, 1963), is set in a world where waste noise is gathered and disposed of by a ‘sonovac’. Mangon is the ‘sound sweep’ who encounters former opera singer Madame Giaconda, now living in an abandoned radio station. Her dearest wish is to sing again, but there is no longer any demand for audible music: instead, the great classics have been rescored for ultrasonic instruments, and give ‘an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody, uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music’.
Ballard’s inaudible music of the future is reminiscent of the Martian music described by Isaac Asimov in his early story, ‘The Secret Sense’ (1941: coll. The Early Asimov, 1974). Fields, a self-confessed aesthete, is tantalised by the knowledge of Martian music composed from patterns of electrical current – music that no human can perceive. He persuades a Martian to inject him with a preparation which will allow him to ‘hear’ the music for just five minutes, after which the relevant part of the cortex will be burnt out, never to be reactivated. Fields listens, and is entranced: the electrical music consists of ‘pure waves of enjoyment’. Then it fades, and he is ‘blind’ forever.
Many descriptions of alien music stress its overwhelming effect on human senses. Langdon Jones, in ‘The Music Makers’ (New Worlds #156, November 1965), reiterates the theme of music as a weapon: his Martians, uniting to drive out the colonists, play music that kills any human listener capable of appreciating it.
"It was music that he would never have dreamed could exist. It said all there was to say. It was beyond emotion … It spiralled around him, catching his brain and his bowels and his lungs. It made breathing impossible… "

Music may play an important part in the process of communicating with, or at least contacting, aliens. In The Lives of a Cell (1978), biologist Lewis Thomas suggests that radio broadcasts of classical music might impress any aliens who may be listening. He proposes continual broadcasts of Bach’s music as a way of ‘bragging’ about our own culture: "[Music] may be the best language we have for explaining what we are like." (Intriguingly, Thomas also refers to Bach as a ‘mutant’).
But would the aliens be impressed by earthly music? Would they glean any meaning, or any information about life on Earth, from the sound alone? From Blish’s comments on terrestrial programme music, quoted above, it seems more probable that aliens hearing human music, or vice versa, would be incapable of accurately reading any great level of meaning into that music. An incorrect interpretation with shattering consequences is described in The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1997). Beautiful alien music emanating from Proxima Centauri inspires a Jesuit-funded mission to ‘God’s other children’. Sandoz, and his Jesuit colleagues, believe that the beauty of the alien songs must indicate a form of religious worship: "All the music that sounds most similar to the extraterrestrial music is sacred in nature." The harrowing climax of the book leads to the realisation that Jana’ata music is ‘not prayer but pornography’: the Jesuit mission, and the listeners on Earth, have comprehensively misinterpreted what they’ve heard in the context of terrestrial culture.
Unlike other art forms, music is dependent on time. A piece of music cannot be appreciated as a whole: it has duration, a beginning and an end. ("Only God," said Beethoven, "is outside time.") Music consists of a series of instructions about pitch and duration: as Douglas Adams’ protagonist discovers, these instructions can be translated into mathematics, and vice versa. Musical works derived from data series have been used by several writers to convey a sense of ‘natural harmony’, and of the innate beauty of mathematics. In Children of God (1998), the sequel to Russell’s The Sparrow, interspecies harmony – in both senses – is signalled by music that encodes the genetic structures of three sentient species. Not all of the music thus derived is harmonic: nothing is perfect. What remains when the dissonant passages are removed is ‘uncanny’ and ‘glorious’ – unlike any music he had ever heard’. Russell suggests that music is one of the ways in which humans make sense out of chaos.
Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud (1957) describes an alien intelligence inhabiting a cloud of black dust surrounding our sun. Humans eventually succeed in communicating with the cloud, and transmit Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata (1818). This elicits a surprising response: the cloud wants the piece to be retransmitted at a faster tempo. Given that there is still controversy about the speed at which this sonata should be played – Beethoven’s metronomic markings, which specify beats per minute, are regarded by many pianists as being unplayable – it’s implicit that the alien prefers Beethoven’s original version to the mundane slower tempo. Perhaps this validates Stockhausen’s inclusion of ‘clouds’ as one of the classes of ‘living beings’ with which humans can empathise via music.
What is the alien’s experience of this music? Is there some ‘hidden meaning’ in it? Kim Stanley Robinson, though he does not refer to the earlier novel, suggests one possibility. In The Memory of Whiteness (1985), he introduces the Orchestra – a complex musical instrument that is believed to have been invented to replace a traditional orchestra. It was devised by the physicist Holywelkin, who was also responsible for the theoretical physics that led to ‘whitsuns’ – miniature ‘suns’ powered by whitelines of energy from the Sun itself. Holywelkin, dead for three hundred years at the time of the novel’s events, claimed that understanding of the Orchestra would lead to understanding of the nature of reality. The current Master of the Orchestra, Johannes Wright, embarks upon a Grand Tour of the solar system. His growing comprehension of the deterministic universe implied by Holywelkin is mirrored in the music he plays. Wright’s ‘Piano Concerto with Mechanical Orchestra, by the Universe’ consists of ‘phrases in the whole range of audible sound… five or six melodic lines that tumbled across each other in a wild, thick contrapuntal mesh, all to the rhythm, the rhythm, the dance…’
While he plays, Wright realises that the music already exists, ‘implied in the big bang so long ago’: an ultimately deterministic creation. It is not only his own music that encodes this ‘secret knowledge’: Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata is used to illustrate ‘the mad energy of the universe’. Wright’s final performance evokes the solar system, the whitelines that tie together the myriad inhabited worlds, and the indomitable fragility of the human spirit. In this part of the novel, Robinson uses the music itself as a metaphor for the physics he describes. It’s a powerful and remarkably successful example of music as mathematics, as – like science fiction itself – a tool for philosophical exploration.

In all but the darkest of futures, music – the music familiar to us now, as well as the music yet to be written – is a part of human, and often alien, life. Science fiction has explored the roles of music and the musician within society, and suggested an astounding variety of ways in which music might be more than mere entertainment.
Music is one of the least representational arts. When it attempts to mirror the function of a text – as in programme music – it often fails, because there is no direct correlation between verbal and non-verbal imagery. In The Memory of Whiteness, music is a move towards representation – and deeper understanding – of objective physical truths. The structured nature of classical music, rather than the spontaneity of popular music, might be the most fitting vehicle for the transformation of mathematical data. Music may not provide an alternate vocabulary, but it can encode emotional and physical truths in ways that language cannot.

Any omissions, oversimplifications etc may be attributed to the author's frantic attempts to compress an article potentially twice as long into a 6,000-word limit.
I would like to thank:
  • Claire Brialey for clarity
  • Mark Plummer for Real Books
  • Andrew Butler for VALIS
  • K V Bailey for Stockhausen
  • Gary Dalkin for editing, and the Metropolis Symphony
  • Everyone on the newsgroups and who provided suggestions, corrections and encouragement.

Thursday, January 07, 1999

The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie - eds.Terri Windling & Delia Sherman

Terri Windling’s Bordertown – ‘the finest of all shared worlds’, according to Locus – makes its hardcover debut in this anthology. Guidebook chapters, frequently works of art in themselves, alternate with short stories by big-name fantasy writers, as well as those who are not (yet) famous.

Bordertown is where science and magic, the World and the (Faerie) Realm, meet: once an ordinary American city, it was transformed by the return of Faerie on the hills beyond the suburbs. Now Bordertown is a frontier town, populated by the rejects of both societies, subject to UN sanctions on faerie trade, and running a flourishing ‘underground, under-thirty’ economy.

Neither science nor magic can quite be trusted in Bordertown. In ‘Arcadia’, by Michael Korolenko, Jill’s disappointment with the city is transmuted as she tries to film a documentary, and finds that her spell-powered camcorder records something quite different to what she sees. Steven Brust’s masterful ‘When the Bow Breaks’ is the tale of a ship’s captain who learns another lesson of magic: treat anything as alive for long enough, or personify it, and you’ve worked a spell. If the Mad River acts like a drug on humans, what might it do to the ships that sail its blood-red waters?

In many modern fantasies, elven themes go hand-in-hand with Celtic myth and magic. Bordertown, true to its multi-cultural manifesto, has room for more: Donnard Sturgis does wonders with voodoo and a gumbo recipe in ‘Half-Life’. ‘Argentine’, by Ellen Steiber, pits an elven thief, stealing whatever someone most loves, against the ghost of another thief whom she encounters in a cemetery on the Day of the Dead. This is one of the most accomplished and atmospheric tales in the book: Steiber’s first fantasy novel is forthcoming from Tor, and if ‘Argentine’ is a true gauge of her style, it should be worth the wait.

The original Bordertown anthologies (none published in the UK, and all out of print in the US) dealt primarily with adolescent themes and obsessions. While this anthology embraces several of the usual rites of passage, there is a sense of emerging maturity. Caroline Stevermer’s ‘Rag’, in particular, is a thoughtful exploration of the idea that ‘hearts of fire grow cold’; that growing up means that you stop caring about the things that used to matter. ‘Socks’, by Delia Sherman, describes the conflicts of adults through the eyes of a sick, amnesiac twelve-year-old girl, subtly and with remarkable effect.

I’ve mentioned only a handful of the stories in the anthology, and they are not necessarily the best. There isn’t a weak story in the book: if anyone still thinks that fantasy is an excuse for poor prose, let them read here and think again.

Friday, January 01, 1999

Antarctica -- Kim Stanley Robinson

I enjoyed this much more when reading it for pleasure than I did while trying to decide whether it was SF for the Arthur C Clarke Awards. (It's set in future, after expiry of Antarctic treaty, but I am not sure this counts).

Robinson certainly knows his stuff: he has clearly read all the books, and is not ashamed to show it. He also manages to blend in several of his recurring themes (high-tech primitivism, living off the land 'with all that technology can do to help: ecological terrorism: a romance of opposites that parallels the political views in opposition …) Most impressively, at least to me this year, he writes about feng shui without sounding precious.

Exploration, science, neither really mattered to Shackleton: what mattered was living in Antarctica. There he had first experienced that being-in-the-world which is our fundamental reality, our one true home: and rather than try to find that experience also in the wilderness that is England, he kept returning south …Only this moment, always. We never get to change the past. We never get to know the future. No reason to wish for one place rather than another; no reason to say I wish I were home, or I wish I were in an exotic new place that is not my home. They will all be the same as this place. Here the experience of existing comes clear. This world is our body.

The narrator of that passage is Ta Shu, a Chinese vid-caster who walks around recording his thoughts and what he sees for a massive audience back home. Once the adventure is over, one of the other characters finds himself watching a badly-translated broadcast:

In a vision we share a story. Lemon said stories are false solutions to real problems. Lamb added corollary, that stories from other planets hence must be false solutions to false problems. What then have we done together? … Take a walk outside in the open air. Wherever you find yourself on the face of this planet, it is a good place. Breathe deeply the breath of the world. Look at the sky over our heads all together. Feel yourself walking: this too is thought. Feel the way you are animal, breathing in the spirit wind. If our time together gives you no more than this walk, then still it has done well.

Robinson also manages another meditation on Beethoven's music ('melodies so stuffed with meaning that they were landscapes in themselves'), which is pretty good since apparently the Hammerklavier sonata contains the keys to life, the universe and everything (according to Kim Stanley Robinson's earlier novel, The Memory of Whiteness). Smart chap, that Beethoven.