Metawyrd Archives: Great Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels About Music

Of course I noticed io9′s ambitious list 100 Albums Every Science Fiction and Fantasy Fan Should Listen To. Even though it misses at least one key album (Klaus Schulze’s “Dune,” anyone?), the list spans multiple genres and it isn’t afraid to get into the nooks and crannies of genres. i09 namechecks a ton of notable recordings including albums from Sun Ra, Eon, Cybotron, the Mountain Goats, Meshuggah, Voivod, Bo Hansson, the Residents, Hawkwind, and of course the Rocky Horror soundtrack.

In tribute to this mighty effort, here’s three science fiction books and two fantasies which do a great job of giving music the “sensawunda” treatment.

1. The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Possibly the best fantasy about rock music ever, even before the Game of Thrones series made its splashy debut. The book is about the fall and rise of the Nazgul, a dark razor-sharp band from the Sixties who come to an unfortunate end when their lead singer was assassinated by a man with a rifle.

Ten years later, Sandy Blair, former reporter for the Hedgehog–aka Rolling Stone–is called in to investigate the occultish death of the Nazgul’s former promoter. Of course he is in for more than anyone could possibly expect. The band is returning again and the powers behind the Nazgul are raising the long shadows of the Sixties for good and for ill. So what side is Blair on? Can he even tell difference between the two sides?

Martin pulls out all the stops here and the book does a masterful job of evoking the power of rock music. Hell, he even made me feel the dilemmas that drove the Boomers to yuppiedom. That alone is an amazing feat. Three thumbs up.

2. Little Heroes by Norman Spinrad

In the future, The Music Industry has discovered that its approach to making hits–selecting a few youngsters and transforming them into Big Stars–is not generating enough revenue. Unfortunately, the powers that be make a crucial mistake by hiring an old rocker (cue someone like Bonnie Raitt) to help produce the current crop of budding stars and underestimating the power of new sensory technology to move The People. The result: Revolution!!!

OK, the plot of Little Heroes seems farfetched and it is. Yet, in the late 1980s, Spinrad envisioned a totally synthesized pop music that has an exotic, lush and totally freaky sound that definitely resembles the heavily produced electronic pop of today. The author has collaborated with the French avant-rock band Heldon (whose name is from one of his albums) so the man knows something about music. One thumb up.

3. Glimpses by Lewis Shiner

What if you could manage to persuade your musical idols to finish lost masterpieces? Shiner attempts to answer this question in this book with the Beatles, (Get Back), the Doors (Celebration of the Lizard), Brian Wilson (Smile), and Jimi Hendrix (New Rays of the Rising Sun).

Shiner does a wonderful job evoking the different places and people from the ’60s, with the caveat that I am not a detail nerd for any of artists in the book. Yet, in the end, I’m on the fence about recommending it to everybody. All of the players in this drama are well-known to most readers but how many people really care about Brian Wilson’s Smile (besides the usual bootleg-wielding fanatics)? For music fans, two thumbs. For the rest, one to one and a half thumbs.

4. In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan

During World War II, a Romany physicist combines insights into quantum physics, alternate realities, and molecular biology to create plans for a device that may change mankind for the better. Sam Dance, who is studying to be an electrical engineer for the Army and plays tenor sax, is given the plans and recruits his friend and fellow engineer Wink (who not coincidentally plays jazz violin). Both of them discover the amazing new “modern jazz” (aka bebop) and immediately see parallels between the music and the nature of reality.

Music is not at the center of this plot but when Goonan brings it in, her love of bebop shines like the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (link). It took my breath away and for that alone, this book belongs here. Two thumbs.

5. Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip

A man who is nicknamed the Basilisk for his cruelty takes over the kingdom and massacres the royal family. However, a very young heir to the throne is stripped of his name and given anonymously to a school for bards in the wilderness. Tormalayne House, the old royal house, becomes a home to musicians who perform for the new royal court.

The book details the adventures of the nameless bard as he returns to discover his name, the old royal house’s last effort to return to the throne, and the music that is played at Tormalayne House and elsewhere in the book.

Like most McKilip fantasies, Song is not written in your average work-a-day fantasy prose. At points, her prose has a stream-of-consciousness feel, like walking through a dream, and the uninitiated may find it hard to follow. But it is oh so worth your while. Take your time to discover Patricia McKillip and you will be rewarded. Three thumbs.

There you go. Hope you enjoy these books. I think they are well worth your time.

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