This week, we all got a treat when Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity (from the International Space Station) went viral.
“Space Oddity” is indeed a classic. When Paste Magazine posted a list of the “Top 23 Greatest Sci-Fi Songs,” Bowie’s song was #1.
But I’m always a little wary when someone describes a song as “science fiction music.” My general sense has always been that anything labeled “sci-fi music” leans heavily toward the overly twee (“Particle Man” sing-a-longs) or toward the overly narrative (Operation: Mindcrime, anyone?).
I think there’s a huge place for music dealing with science-fiction themes, tropes, and ideas. And imagery. We can expand the definition to include some really great stuff if we include “SF imagery.” But telling a story in a song–or worse, a concept album–really doesn’t cut it for me. Why not just write a novella?
And, yet, we have Bowie’s beautiful, haunting song. Is it SF? I always heard it was a metaphor for drug use, and someone losing himself in a Syd Barrett kind of way. Out there. In his mind. Never coming back. The fact that you could listen to it and get two stories at once always appealed to me.
Of course, I’m not thinking any of that when I watch Hadfield’s video. I’m thinking “Wow. That’s real sense-of-wonder stuff.” And the song’s still great.
I have some final scheduling for ConQuest, the Kansas City Science Fiction Convention. I’ll be on panels for Hadley Rille Books and AboutSF. My fiction reading is at 4:00-4:30 p.m. EST on Sunday the 26th. (That’s right after the Charity Auction and before the Closing Ceremonies.)
I will either be reading the “steampunk sheepdog” story or the “disc jockey vs. haunted house” story. One’s done; the other’s getting heavily revised and needs a try-out before mailing it to editors–but it might be too long.
Addendum: The Charity Auction is once again sponsoring AboutSF. Proceeds go to pay the hard-working student(s) who have my old job supporting science-fiction education and volunteerism. AboutSF is a joint educational project of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Science Fiction Research Association, and the University of Kansas. THANK YOU CONQUEST!
Quite possibly the best record review I ever read was an alternate history tale in disguise. I’ve spent a decent chunk of free time scouring the online archives of the great Americana magazine No Depression trying to find a reprint I could post here. No dice.
The review was for Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, Volume II. This was the album where they put their music and arrangements to a batch of Woody Guthrie songs that Woody never lived long enough to record.
Rather than just heap praise on the album (a foregone conclusion given the magazine’s readership and the quality of the music), the reviewer wrote a story where Woody Guthrie didn‘t die. Instead, he hooked up with Buddy Holly and kick-started the folk-rock phenomenon seven years earlier than it actually happened.
(Six years doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking about the difference between 1958 to 1965, it might as well be decades.)
The review celebrated Guthrie, Holly, and the whole history of post-1950s American music. The big question for me was “Why did the review work?” Why shoehorn Buddy Holly into Woody Guthrie’s story?
Answer: Buddy is the official go-to guy for desiderium and “might have beens,” in music and in science fiction. Who else would you use?
As I researched my paper on science fiction and nostalgia, I came across the work of Svetlana Boym.
In many ways, her book–The Future of Nostalgia–is an unintentional answer to SF scholars who protest contemporary science fiction’s use of retro tropes, or accuse modern SF of looking backward instead of forward.
Boym distinguishes between two kinds of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. Restorative is the conservative kind, the “let’s go back to how we did things before” kind. It idealizes the past, denying that such idealizations really don’t portray the past accurately.
Reflective nostalgia is more complex. It is more ironic and more individual, and so the signifiers are less stable. Boym says “It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another.” That is, we can love things about the past, but also critique them. And, most importantly, use them as building blocks for a better, more interesting future.
The things I find in nostalgic SF, particularly Howard Waldrop and Bradley Denton because I’m researching them, tend to fit into that reflective framework. That’s definitely true of the 20th century portrayed in Kathleen Goonan’s In War Times (more on that soon). I think most playful steampunk that both revels in and critiques Victorian culture (like Priest and DeFilippo, just off the top of my head) is also reflective as well.
I like that Boym gives a theoretical underpinning to my research, even as I continue to sort out the implications.
The Eaton Conference went well this weekend. Jason Ellis posted a great digitally curated collection of Twitter posts covering several of the major panels. Still, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
It’s worth listing the musical artists or soundtracks covered: Giorgio Moroder, Sun Ra, Bjork, Amon Tobin, music in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, opera in The Fifth Element, use of “All Along the Watchtower” in Battlestar Galactica, a whole panel in “Alterity and/in SF Music,” and my own paper on Buddy Holly.
That’s a pretty wide range. Is it a stretch to say that it’s indicative of SF/music studies in general? I’ve always had the sense that SF leans toward the avant garde. Sun Ra and Tobin fit that bill. So where’s the country and western, blues, or zydeco?
(Also, it was nice to meet my co-panelist Grant Dempsey, along with Sean Nye, Keren Omry, and Mark Young. Wish I’d had more time to talk to everyone there.)
While researching my paper on Buddy Holly, nostalgia, and retro-futurism for the Eaton/SFRA Science Fiction conference, I came across this interesting exchange from October 2012. I’ll be mentioning these three essays (at least in passing) during my presentation; they’re worth reading if you missed them and worth revisiting if you didn’t.
They deal with the state of contemporary SF and its tendency to look “backward.” It begins with Paul Kincaid’s review of the Best Science Fiction of 2012 Anthologies, then Jonathan McCalmont’s impassioned response on his Ruthless Culture blog, and then David Brin’s critique of that response. Brin’s essay is called “Has 21st Century Science Fiction gone cowardly? Or worse… nostalgic?”
My paper wades into this debate, considering at least one case where iconography from retro/nostalgia culture was used in a progressive way by SF writers.
What makes steampunk tick? Is it nostalgia or something else? I understand nostalgia for the ’50s or the ’80s. A lot of people are still alive who lived through that. But why set stories a hundred-plus years in the past?
Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker gives us some answers, and my students latched onto them quite well. About half the class had encountered steampunk; the others had no idea what it was. That was about perfect for my purposes.
They immediately recognized in Zeke Wilkes, one of Priest’s main viewpoint characters, the same appeal of unrestrained, unsupervised boyishness that we found in Tom Sawyer earlier in the semester. Zeke is out to prove himself, in a world where adult supervision may or may not be a good thing. The longing for freedom from constraints –it’s potent stuff in nostalgia terms. Everyone understood that “young protagonist” could be literary shorthand for this idealization of youth as a time of freedom.
But what about the 19th century? How is the era of the Civil War, slavery, diseases, and hard outdoor labor in any way nostalgic? Priest portrays all of that fairly accurately (although from a geographical distance that leaves the Civil War off-stage and slavery–the moral issue of the age– unmentioned).
To liven things up, however, Priest adds toxic gasses and zombies into the mix, as if the 19th century weren’t unlivable enough for 21st century readers.
It think that’s part of the appeal. Somehow, steampunk appeals to the civil war re-enactor in all of us. People who want to sleep on cold ground in unwashed, sweaty clothes. People who can take apart every gadget they own and reassemble it with ease. People who, when faced with constant threat of violence from both nature and unrestrained villains, come through… not shiny… or clean, but…triumphant.
People like Boneshaker‘s Zeke and Briar Wilkes.
For as storytelling mode that often gets recognized for its fashion sense or its ornate, period-appropriate turns of phrase, steampunk’s a tough little genre. Boneshaker proves that.