Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 22 August 2022. Tagged: Music, Theme.

This article deals with music as it is portrayed and speculated about in sf. For discussion of actual music with sf themes, see SF Music.

Of the Arts, music is the one most commonly featured in sf – albeit not quite to the extent that Fantasy is pervaded by it. Several sf writers studied it, notably including Lloyd Biggle Jr (PhD in musicology), Langdon Jones and Edgar Pangborn, or were for a time professionally or semiprofessionally involved in music: Philip K Dick purveyed classical music on a radio programme and in a record shop; Douglas Adams, Biggle, Jerome Bixby, Anthony Burgess, the film director John Carpenter, the sf editor Edmund Crispin, Samuel R Delany, L Ron Hubbard, Jones, Desmond Leslie, Pangborn and especially Somtow Sucharitkul (see S P Somtow) have composed music, while Delany, Laurence M Janifer, Anne McCaffrey, Barry N Malzberg, Michael Moorcock, Dan Morgan, Chris Morris and Janet E Morris, Charles Platt, John B Spencer, Boris Vian and many others have appeared as performers, often of their own compositions.

Music, dependent on the instruments with which it is played, is more than most artforms associated with contemporary technology. Also central, though we now take it for granted, is the technology of sound reproduction. The "frozen words" of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1552; trans 1653-1694) anticipate sound recording, as, more scientifically, do the hi-tech Sound Houses of Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap). Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), saw mechanically reproduced music as fundamental to a Utopia. In "The Colours of the Masters" (March 1988 F&SF) Sean McMullen imagines a nineteenth century in which a clockwork "pianospectrum" has been invented in time to record Chopin and Liszt.

Many sf authors, like most of the general public, believe that radical musicians (often using electronic technology) are producing work that is deliberately ugly and unintelligible. Others believe that the influence of technology on music is unavoidable and will eventually give rise to new masterpieces. Arthur C Clarke, in The Songs of Distant Earth (June 1958 If; much exp 1986), makes the realistic extrapolation that historical processes will integrate today's electronic music and instruments into the artistic mainstream. Futuristic or Alien music is, of course, rather difficult to describe, and stories which try – including "The Music Makers" (November 1965 New Worlds) by Langdon Jones and Sweetwater (1973) by Laurence Yep – set themselves a near-impossible task.

Musicians from the past, both rock and classical, occasionally figure in sf. A flute-playing character in Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969) is obsessed by the life of the nineteenth-century poet and musician Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). The seeming revival of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) – to demonstrate the future poverty of hi-tech music – in James Blish's "A Work of Art" (July 1956 Science Fiction Stories; vt "Art-Work" in Science Fiction Showcase, anth 1959, ed Mary Kornbluth) turns out to be a "mind sculpture" imposed on the brain of a totally unmusical person; Blish's portrayal of Strauss as a worn-out note-spinner depends on the fact that his learned-sounding resumé of the composer's career stops in 1940, thus omitting the flood of remarkable new works Strauss created after that date. Jimi Hendrix is mysteriously revived, with no desire to perform music, in Michael Moorcock's "Dead Singers" (in Factions, anth 1974, ed Giles Gordon & Alex Hamilton; vt "A Dead Singer" in Moorcock's Book of Martyrs, coll 1976). Other stories of interest in this context include Gregory Benford's "Doing Lennon" (April 1975 Analog) and Michael Swanwick's "The Feast of St Janis" (in New Dimensions 11, anth 1980, ed Robert Silverberg and Marta Randall).

Music has always played a substantial role in literature, whether as a principal plot element or only incidentally, as in Captain Nemo improvising at the organ or Gully Foyle plucking primitive tunes on an egg-slicer while marooned in space. The profound effects achieved by music (and particularly singing), both beneficial and destructive, have been favourite subjects from the stories of Orpheus and Homer's sirens through to, for example, Edgar Pangborn's "The Music Master of Babylon" (November 1954 Galaxy; vt "A Master of Babylon" in Beyond Armageddon, anth 1985, ed Walter M Miller Jr and Martin H Greenberg) and "The Golden Horn" (February 1962 F&SF), or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's operatic "Un Bel Di" (in Two Views of Wonder, anth 1973, ed Thomas N Scortia & Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) and "The Fellini Beggar" (in Beyond Time, anth 1976, ed Sandra Ley). The Orpheus legend features commonly in sf versions: examples of its Hard-SF transmutation include the Berserker story "Starsong" (January 1968 If) by Fred Saberhagen and, very interestingly, Fool's Run (1987) by Patricia McKillip. Music's therapeutic powers can be seen in Delany's "Corona" (October 1967 F&SF) and the impact of the Singers in his "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" (December 1968 New Worlds). Anne McCaffrey's training as an opera singer is evident in her The Ship Who Sang (coll of linked stories 1969) and elaborately reflected in The Crystal Singer (stories in Continuum 1, anth 1974, to Continuum 4, anth 1975, ed Roger Elwood; fixup 1982) and its sequel Killashandra (1985), all of which focus on the potency of music. In Orson Scott Card's Songmaster (fixup 1980) both the healing and destructive powers of music are shown. Music is effectively used as a weapon in Tintagel (1981) by Paul H Cook and in Dargason (1977) by Colin Cooper; in Charles L Harness's "The Rose" (March 1953 Authentic) the unusual time signature of Tchaikowski's Sixth Symphony (Pathetique) is used as a disabling ploy in a fight with a Villain; also central to this tale is the music for a ballet adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose" (in The Happy Prince and Other Tales coll 1888). Music may be a political tool; it instigates revolution against repression in Lloyd Biggle's The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (April 1961 Analog as "Still, Small Voice"; exp 1968), but supports the soulless, mechanical nature of the societies in Yevgeny Zamiatin's My (trans as We 1924) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). (Biggle's interest in music is also apparent in many of the stories in The Metallic Muse [coll 1972]). In Frank Herbert's "Operation Syndrome" (June 1954 Astounding; vt "Nightmare Blues" in Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1955, anth 1955, ed T E Dikty) music is a means of revenge, and it is a means of escape from the constraints of the physical body in On Wings of Song (February-April 1979 F&SF; 1979) by Thomas M Disch.

Since the late 1960s the charismatic nature of rock music – and its power to create emotions so strong that they can be read by those who feel them as transcendent – has played an important role in sf, sometimes ambiguously, as in the Satanic heavy metal of George R R Martin's Armageddon Rag (1983), with its power both to heal and to destroy. This novel, part horror and part sf, has an intense feeling for the music of the 1960s of a kind quite common in recent sf. It (relevantly) powers such stories as Howard Waldrop's "Flying Saucer Rock & Roll" (January 1985 Omni) and "Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance" (August 1988 Asimov's), the former about Black kids picked up by Aliens on account of the transcendent power of old Frankie Lymon songs, the latter about "a song that was gonna change the world" and, two decades later at a class reunion, does. 1960s rock appears by way of local colour in many novels by Stephen King, sometimes relevantly, and wholly irrelevantly in Allen Steele's Orbital Decay (1989). This last was reviled by some critics as culturally trapped in a rock'n'roll era (dead even now), even though it is set in the mid-twenty-first century; it is a specific case of a general problem – the future story whose cultural referents, often musical, are so absurdly anachronistic that willing suspension of disbelief flies out the window. Other authors who draw powerful metaphors from the rock'n'roll era are Jack Womack – whose Elvissey (1993) plays on the Elvis Presley myth, as do Robert Rankin's Armageddon books and Allen Steele's Clarke County, Space (1990) – Lewis Shiner, Norman Spinrad – notably in "The Big Flash" (in Orbit 5, anth 1969, ed Damon Knight) and Little Heroes (1987), another book about revolution and the music business – Bradley Denton, in Wrack and Roll (1986) and Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede (1991), and John Shirley, in Eclipse (1985). Two predecessors of this particular strand of sf writing were The Book of Stier (1971) by Robin Sanborn and Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian W Aldiss; in both, youth movements are at least partially inspired by popular music, as a prelude to the triumph of the counterculture, and at the risk of creating enormous personal power. One of the most interesting variants is Bruce Sterling's acid, precise fable of an Alternate History in which rock critic Lester Bangs (1948-1982) lived on, "Dori Bangs" (September 1989 Asimov's). Some of the conventions of this strand are parodied in The Truth about The Flaming Ghoulies (1984) by John Grant; the elevation of the Vampire Lestat to rock megastardom in Anne Rice's series of fantasies, The Vampire Chronicles (1976-1992), can also be read as in part a Parody (perhaps an unconscious one) of the subgenre.

Colonizers of alien planets might get back to their roots with access to a piano – as in Frank Herbert's "Passage for Piano" (in The Book of Frank Herbert, coll 1973) – but more commonly music in alien circumstances is used as a means of understanding or even as the only means of Communication. Touring musicians thus may have an ambassadorial function, as in the string quartet that visits the advanced society of Jules Verne's L'île à hélice (1895; trans as The Floating Island 1896). An interplanetary touring opera company features in Jack Vance's ironically titled Space Opera (1965), and suffers characteristically Vancean mishaps; in Frederik Pohl's Narabedla Ltd (1988), operatic productions (for which performers are in effect abducted) are the only Earth export of interest to an interstellar community which regards us as hopelessly primitive. Aliens may well be biologically musical, as with the trumpet-faced heralds, one form of the Selenites in H G Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901), the hollow-horned unicorns in Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept sequence (1980 onward) and the centauroid titanides in John Varley's Gaean trilogy (1979-1984). Mutated singing plants feature in J G Ballard's "Prima Belladonna" (December 1956 Science Fantasy). Musical contact is achieved over interplanetary distances in Barrington J Bayley's "The Big Sound" (February 1962 Science Fantasy) as by P F Woods, in which an orchestra of 6000 becomes not only a sound transmitter but also a receiver. Music as an aspect of alien Linguistics is central to Jack Vance's "The Moon Moth" (August 1961 Galaxy); it has since become almost a Cliché. The aliens communicate with us in this way in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), initially with the most celebrated five-note musical phrase in sf. Music is combined with dance in Spider and Jeanne Robinson's Stardance (March 1977 Analog; exp 1979), another novel which supposes that rapport with aliens might be made easier by the use of the kind of nonverbal communication which music represents; yet another is The Rapture Effect (1987) by Jeffrey Carver. An amusing, well told ecological melodrama is Sheri S Tepper's After Long Silence (1987; vt The Enigma Score 1989), in which giant, crystalline lifeforms can be appeased – or, it turns out, spoken to – only by specially trained musicians.

Music unlocks galactic history for terrestrials in Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969). It achieves such religious significance for the Third Men in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) that a Holy Empire of Music is founded; one of Stapledon's Last Men describes the Music of the Spheres and, in its most rarefied application, it has become part of the very fabric of some early universes described in Stapledon's Star Maker (1937), where all movement is musical rather than spatial. It provides a kind of metaphysical safety valve in R A Lafferty's Alternate-History fantasy "The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny" (in Apocalypses, coll 1977), whose composer Sweeny has seemingly averted World War One, World War Two and the coming World War Three by redirecting their destructive energies into his three hatefully apocalyptic operas, Armageddon I, II and III. Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness (1985) uses a great interplanetary "Orchestra" – a vast calliope-like instrument with a single player – as part of a complex metaphor, combining music and mathematics, in which musical structure and cosmic structure are seen as analogous. This sort of music/Mathematics/structure-of-the-Universe imagery appears also in David Zindell's ornate Neverness (1988).

Perhaps the most distinguished of recent sf novels with a musical theme is The Child Garden (1988) by Geoff Ryman, in which a densely portrayed future world, whose people are infected into Intelligence by virally transmitted DNA, is both transcended and reflected – in all its infernal and purgatorial aspects – by the setting to music of Dante Alighieri's Inferno and Purgatorio (written circa 1314-1321), works which also shape the novel. This is one of the most richly orchestrated portrayals of the function of music in all sf.

The invention of imaginary musical instruments is surprisingly common in sf, and by no means only recently. It is touched on in several stories, notably "Die Automate" ["The Automata"] (5/15 January-7/16 April 1814 Zeitung für die elegante Welt) by the composer E T A Hoffmann. There have been many proposals for what, in recent years, have been known as sound sculpture and sound environments: early mentions include the sounds made by wind blowing through the statues in Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872). More recent wind-powered sound sculptures can be found in the "Music Masons" entry in Dictionary of the Khazars (1983) by Milorad Pavič (1929-2009); they intricately carve rock salt in preparation for the season of the 40 winds. But the seeming Aeolian harps that litter the planetary deserts of Colin Kapp's "The Subways of Tazoo" (in New Writings in SF 3, anth 1965, ed John Carnell) prove to be collectors for a Power Source that exploits the world's extremely high winds.

Future musical instruments mostly fall into two classes: variants on traditional instruments and those that exploit future technology. The focus of J B Priestley's lighthearted Low Notes on a High Level (1954) is the subcontrabass wind instrument, the Dobbophone, while more conventional instruments include the baliset – resembling a nine-stringed guitar – played by troubadours in Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965). Moderately familiar instruments tend to be found in low-technology and Post-Holocaust environments, like the pipe played by a six-fingered Mutant in Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935), the 20-hole flute (played with fingers and toes) fashioned inside a mutant's machete in Delany's The Einstein Intersection (1967) and, in Richard Cowper's Corlay trilogy (1978-1982), the double pipe articulated by its player's surgically twinned tongue-tip in the Britain of 3000 CE. Jack Vance is particularly fond of inventing bizarre instruments: a late example is the froghorn lovingly described in Night Lamp (1996), which combines a complex brass instrument, a kind of bagpipe, and a nose flute whose mastery requires the development of a "good nasal embouchure". The near-unplayable eponym of Iain M Banks's The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) can only be performed on another overly complicated instrument, the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, after bodily modification since the player needs not only both feet for its pedals but four arms.

Forms of instruments unknown at the time of writing but which could have existed a couple of decades later include: the Fourier audiosynthesizer in Charles L Harness's "The Rose", which anticipates programmable synthesizers by some 25 years; the three-bass radiolyn played in an ensemble in Delany's Out of the Dead City (as Captives of the Flame 1963; rev 1968); and the multichord in Biggle's "The Tunesmith" (August 1957 If). The sensory-syrynx in Delany's Nova (1968) is operated like a combination of theremin and guitar, has sympathetic drone strings and can project holographic visual effects using an inbuilt laser – here echoing the much earlier "Visi-Sonar" of Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; vt The Man Who Upset the Universe 1955). A character's yearning for an instrument that can generate his imagined synaesthetic son et lumière effects (see Synaesthesia) is central to the final section of John Brunner's The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy #32 and #34 as "City of the Tiger" and "The Whole Man"; exp fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965); this problem's solution uses liquid mobiles rather than the Computer graphics now expected. The ultracembalo in "The Song the Zombie Sang" (December 1970 Cosmopolitan) by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg is operated by electronic glove controllers. A direct neural input to the auditory lobes is achieved with J G Ballard's ultrasonic instruments in "The Sound-Sweep" (February 1960 Science Fantasy), thereby reducing workload for the "sonovac" operators in a world overloaded with sonic pollution. Direct stimulation of the brain is featured also in Philip K Dick's We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972) by way of the Waldteufel Euphoria and the Hammerstein Mood Organ, and has of course become a Cliché in scenarios involving Cyberspace and/or Upload. Musical overstimulation of the brain's sound centres is a disturbing form of Torture in Jack Vance's above-cited Night Lamp.

Not all such instruments are played by soloists. Dance music in quintuple time in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is performed by 16 sexophones (plus additional ether music, synthetic music and a scent-and-colour organ). A typical "cosmos group" of audiovisual instruments is featured in Robert Silverberg's The World Inside (1971): vibrastar, comet-harp, incantator, orbital diver, gravity-drinker, doppler-inverter and spectrum-rider, some of them generating sounds and images that are modulated by others. Similarly, in J G Ballard's Vermilion Sands (coll 1971) sonic statues with built-in microphones respond to sounds about them, replaying them in transmuted form. The most outrageous instruments, massively destructive and buried in concrete bunkers, are played by means of off-planet remote control by the rock group Disaster Area in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980): these are the photon-ajuitar, bass detonator and Megabang drum complex, with the performance reaching its climax when a stunt Spaceship performs a suicide dive into the system's sun.

An anthology of original stories relating to pop and rock music is In Dreams (anth 1992) edited by Paul J McAuley and Kim Newman. [HD/PN/BS/DRL]

see also: Meme; Theatre.

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies