Pop Songs in Science-Fiction Movies and TV Shows

This week, Tor.com posted a list of songs that did (and didn’t) work in SF and fantasy TV shows and films.  Natalie Zutter, Emily Asher-Perrin and Leah Schnelbach compiled a fun list.

Face it–if you grew up without cable TV and before the advent of on-demand music, movies might be your only chance to discover interesting stuff that commercial radio had dismissed.  I first encountered a whole lot of my favorite songs on soundtracks to movies.

And directors can famously take a song that sounds “okay” on record and find something in it that the rest of us missed.  (Jonathan Lethem famously noted the way “The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan “blindsided” many long-time Dylan fans who heard it on the The Big Lebowski soundtrack, though we’d had the album for years; that’s probably the pinnacle of this sort of thing)

I won’t list a bunch of my favorites right now except to say “Yes!” to their thought on Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack (power pop and yacht rock in a space fantasy=genius), and “Hell Yes!” to their inclusion of The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” from Fight Club.

For the record, my personal favorite soundtrack to any SF movie:

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On io9’s Top 100 Science Fiction Songs

A list of the “Top 100 Science Fiction-Themed Songs” was released by io9 this week.  I love lists like this and the discussion that they provoke.

It takes a lot of time to browse through all 100, but there are some trends and ideas I’m pondering:

  • It looks like some old stand-bys are being replaced by new stand-bys.  Two songs apiece for Janelle Monae (yeah!) and Modest Mouse (kinda yeah!), but nothing from Queensryche or Hawkwind.  The aging fanbase factors here, but it seems like all fans–young or old–tend to over-rely on individual artists in these lists rather than picking a wide breadth.
  • Surf rock gets props, despite lack of lyrics.  The Ventures’ “Telstar” ranks highly, seemingly representing all their ilk. Man or Astroman? get a nod as well.  Good for io9!
  • Satirical and humorous songs are underrated on the list.  No “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll.”  No Tom Lehrer.  Not a “Purple People Eater” in sight.  Novelty songs–arguably harder to write than imagistic, atmospheric stuff that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny–still don’t get their due.
  • If we’re going to include imagistic stuff, why stop at great–but marginally SF–tracks by famous artists? It’s cool to see the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” at #3, but it’s a stretch.  Robyn Hitchcock and Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard have made careers out of mining F & SF’s weirder imagery.  Surely we can bump a prog rocker or three off the list to consider them.
  • Where’s Jonathan?  Any list of great SF songs without something by Jonathan Richman is dubious, no matter how awesome the other songs may be.

Those are my preliminary thoughts.   Again, I admire the heck out of i09 for creating lists like this, knowing that they’ll take flak for it but doing it anyway.  It keeps the discussion vibrant.  A couple of videos below:

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About Soderbergh’s Black-and-White Raiders Edit

Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film.  Ever.  More than just 80s nostalgia to me.

I finally watched a good-sized chunk of the Steven Soderbergh edit of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  If you haven’t heard, he basically cut out all the sound, converted it to black-and-white, and inserted a techno-ambient score.

All this was done “for educational purposes” by Soderbergh to call attention to the cinematic genius of Raiders, letting viewers “think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are.”

Well, it works.  The black-and-white conversion looks great–calling attention to the beautifully crafted lighting.  And the staging is amazing, though I doubt anyone didn’t already know that.  Here’s a clip from my favorite scene.  Just look at all the objects Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe are juggling here:

raiders two

The question here seems to be: doesn’t this work any time you take something well crafted visually (cinema, TV, etc)  and do something to take it out of narrative context?

Give Raiders at techno soundtrack.  (I’m told it’s mostly Trent Reznor’s soundtrack work, from his Giorgio Moroder fetish phase).

Play “Dark Side of the Moon” behind Wizard of Oz.  (I’m sure someone on the webs has already pointed out the similarity, but it’s worth mentioning).

Put old B-movie horror on the TV behind the bar while a band plays.  (Seriously, we’ve all zoned out to this at least once, right?)

And, hey, let Giorgio Moroder score Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

I spent an afternoon at my pal Eddye’s house strumming guitars back in the early 2000s.  We were playing along to Mike Ness’s Cheating at Solitaire album while a marathon of The Powerpuff Girls played silently on TV for a couple of hours.

I left with a new-found respect for Powerpuff Girls, mostly because I noticed only the animation layouts and the portrayal of constant motion on that show.   That never would have happened had I simply tried to “watch” an episode.

Anyway, the Soderbergh edit is pretty cool and worth the time.  It’s still my favorite movie.


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What Stories Were Most Popular in SF Course?

I’ve submitted final grades for my summer Science Fiction class at UC Davis.  I will post some more info about the class in the coming weeks, including a lesson plan or two for any teachers out there looking for suggestions.

Based on the content of the papers and final exams (where student could choose which stories to write about), the most popular stories were as follows:

  • E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”
  • Clifford Simak’s “Desertion
  • Judith Merill’s “That Only a Mother”
  • Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”
  • Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”
  • Pat Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover”

Those stories came up the most in answers on the final.  It may be because they overlap with so many of the overarching themes that we discussed:

  • Dystopia/Utopia (Forster, Russ, Cadigan)
  • War and Weapons (Merill, Simak, Bradbury, Russ)
  • Posthuman Life Forms (all of them if you spin it a certain way, but Cadigan and Simak for sure)
  • Gender and Sexuality (Merill and Russ, obviously, but also the mother from “The Machine Stops” and the protagonist of “Pretty Boy,” who some students saw as a “feminized” man).

Oddly, with the exception of Russ, these are all earthbound SF.  Not a lot of “First Contact” alien stories.

Also, just because they were most popular doesn’t necessarily mean they resulted in the best papers.  Had a really strong paper on James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur,” for example.


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Defining Science Fiction: A Writing Assignment

For the first paper of my summer SF class, I had them think about what we mean when we say “science fiction.”  Here’s the paper assignment (for anyone playing along at home):

For the first paper, you will defend a definition of science fiction by using details from your reading.  This essay requires you to use ONE of the stories we’ve read and two outside short essays from popular journalism.

1) Read the two online essays, Quentin Cooper’s BBC article and Charlie Jane Anders’ compilation of famous definitions.

2) Pick one of the definitions on Anders’s list.  Consider how it might or might not support Cooper’s assertion that we cannot “unambiguously” portray science fiction.  You will ultimately agree or disagree with Cooper at some point in your text.

3) Select one of the stories we’ve read on or prior to August 13th.  Use it to provide support for the definition you chose.

Your thesis should be something along the lines of “<PERSON X>’s definition is strongest because it incorporates <ideas x or y>, as seen in the <STORY X>”. Your thesis should not be your own proposed, synthesized definition.

The list of stories they could use included:

  • Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta”
  • Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”
  • Wells’s “The Star”
  • Forster’s “The Machine Stops”
  • Stone’s “Conquest of Gola”
  • Moore’s “Shambleau”
  • Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey”
  • Simak’s “Desertion”
  • Sargent’s “Gather Blue Roses”
  • Waldrop’s “Heirs of the Perisphere”
  • Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat”

Feel free to write your own 3-page response (but keep ‘em to yourself.  I’ve graded enough of them, delightful though they were). ;)

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Vote for Kansas City in 2016 at Worldcon

If you or someone you know is heading to the World Science Fiction Convention in London in 15 days (Aug 14-18), I encourage you to support Kansas City’s bid to host the 2016 Worldcon.  They’ve done a splendid job of planning.

The convention center venue is near the Sprint Center and the Power & Light District.  The area is recently developed with many new restaurants, bars, and an Alamo Drafthouse.  (If you haven’t been to KC in the past five years, you haven’t seen this.)

I’ll also suggest a few literary day-trip options for anyone interested:

  • A Heinlein tour.  Robert Heinlein included many KC landmarks in his works.  You can visit those, and his hometown of Butler (1 hour south).
  • A Doc Savage detour.  Lester Dent’s hometown of La Plata is about 3 hours away.  The local library has a great collection of his Doc Savage and Avenger material, and his home is still standing.
  • A Mark Twain excursion.  If you’re adventurous, Hannibal, MO, is only 4 hours away.  The hometown of Mark Twain has a great new museum and historic buildings, including original Norman Rockwell paintings of Huck/Tom and original sketches from SF classic, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  The town has some classic kitsch too.

On the non-literary but still legendary front, everyone who isn’t a vegetarian should have Arthur Bryant’s barbecue at least once.  There’s no sauce like it, and no sauce better than it.  Go to the original one on Brooklyn Avenue.

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New Flash Fiction – “Have You Seen Lucky?”

My short story “Have You Seen Lucky?” was recently published by Abyss & Apex.

Dog lovers and Replacements fans should enjoy it.

While you’re there, buy a copy of The Best of Abyss & Apex, Vol. 1 which features great short stories by writers like Jude-Marie Green, Rachel Swirsky, Tim Pratt, and the great Jay Lake.

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