“In a room in a tower, high above the city, a piano was playing a man.” This was more or less the first sentence I ever read in a science fiction story, and the oddness of it made a deep impression. I was 13—the story was in a book someone had given me for Christmas. It was called Adventure Stories for Boys, or something similar. I can no longer remember the real title of the book, and all the stories were unsigned, but that opening sentence has stayed with me.
Music runs through our lives, a private delight often shared with others. We all hum, whistle, sing to ourselves. Many of us play instruments, many more sing for pleasure. However, the composer of music stands alone. Where does music come from? What is the nature of the creative urge or talent that responds to imagined chords and harmonies, then channels them to produce an arrangement of notes that no one has ever heard before?
To me, tone deaf and unable to hold a note, it’s a mystery which has become the basis of my most recent novel, The Gradual, out in September 2016 from Titan Publishing. In my story a young composer finds musical inspiration in the islands he can glimpse in the distance from his coastal home. They are part of the Dream Archipelago, a forbidden zone—officially they do not even exist. Yet he senses a profound and inexplicable attraction which he channels into his compositions. As soon as he can he escapes to the islands, where he discovers that in music, as in life, time is as important as sound. Time runs in a gradual fashion, imperceptibly shaping our lives.
Here are five science fiction books—four novels and a themed story collection—where music and time conjoin:
Vermilion Sands by J. G. Ballard (1971)
All nine of these beautiful and enigmatic stories are about art in general, and sometimes music in particular. Notable amongst them is “Prima Belladonna”—amazingly this was one of Ballard’s first published stories in 1956. In a decadent future resort, the owner of a tourist shop which sells genetically modified singing flowers, meets a young and mysteriously alien singer whose voice enchants all those who hear it, but which psychically destroys the flowers. This is a key Ballard book, containing much of his best early work. Not included in Vermilion Sands, but just as highly recommended, is another of his stories about music. “The Sound-Sweep” is amongst his finest works, one of the greatest SF stories of the period.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976)
I will describe this as a counterfactual, in deference to Amis’s general dislike of the phrase “alternate history”, although he did make something of an exception for its use in the SF world. The Alteration is one of the very few SF novels written by an established literary author which shows deep knowledge of, and liking for, science fiction. Indeed, there are in-joke references to SF writers, notably Harry Harrison and Keith Roberts, who both wrote counterfactual novels. We are in a modern world where the Reformation has not taken place, and the Roman Catholic church is dominant. A boy soprano, widely admired for the purity of his voice, is approaching puberty. An “alteration” to prevent this is necessary. Surgery is planned, but the boy, realizing what it will involve, takes to his heels.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
Another entry in the SF genre by a writer recognized as a literary author. Unlike Amis, who wrote in full awareness of the genre, Anthony Burgess appears to have conceived his dystopian future from general principles. He was deeply involved with music all his life, and was a prolific composer. Much of his music was performed in his lifetime. A Clockwork Orange is written in a sort of slang-ridden argot of English and Russian, describing the actions of a young gang (“droogs”), roaming the streets to commit rape, burglary and murder. Alex, the teenage leader of the gang, is obsessed with the symphonies of Beethoven. Arrested and jailed, he is tamed by sessions of brutal psychological conditioning. During this treatment he forms a violent aversion to Beethoven, putting his rehabilitation into question. The film of the novel directed by Stanley Kubrick (1971) follows the American first edition, which cut out the final chapter published elsewhere. This shows Alex as an unreformed character, whereas Burgess’s intention, in the original, was to suggest a cure was possible.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
The novel has a complex structure, consisting of six partially connected stories set in different historical periods. One of the longest stories, close to the centre, describes a distant future world which is based on a slave society of “fabricants”, humans who are drugged into submission. The remarkable quality of this novel is that it was essentially inspired by, and based on, music—in particular, two pieces written by husbands of the artist Yoko Ono: Toshi Ichiyanagi and John Lennon. One of the strongest and most entertaining sequences in the novel is loosely based on the story of Eric Fenby, a young musician who went to work as amanuensis to the dying composer Frederick Delius. A challenging but rewarding novel, highly ambitious and achieved, full of layers and suggestions and haunting images.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
In some respects Station Eleven is a modern return to a classic SF form: a novel describing a worldwide disaster which leaves only a handful of survivors. In one detailed section of the novel we follow a small group of characters before and after the catastrophe, some survive and others do not. One of them ends up in a raggle-taggle band of wanderers, struggling for existence in Michigan, following the shorelines of the Great Lakes. They call themselves the Symphony. By day they are forced to barter, argue and sometimes fight to stay alive, driving through the woods in their old pickup trucks, now engineless and horse-drawn. In the evenings they set up camp, take out musical instruments and perform Beethoven and Sibelius for the (small) audiences who emerge from their own hiding places. But this is only one aspect of an extremely satisfying, highly original and often moving novel.
Top image: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Christopher Priest is a contemporary novelist and a leading figure in modern SF and fantasy. His novel The Islanders won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Award. The Separation won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award. He was selected for the original Best Of Young British Novelists in 1983.