Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Work of Art by James Blish

James Blish
First published in Science Fiction Stories, 1956.

I wonder sometimes if certain genres encourage certain sorts of structures in fiction. For example, horror stories seem naturally inclined towards the shock ending, a farce heads inevitably to a state of twisting plots and confusions, detective stories depend on short scenes and gradual revelations, and romances build sexual tension to bursting point then bathe in the afterglow of the big wedding or prom night.

Science fiction is no different. I think the substance of science fiction encourages certain structural elements. Most of these revolve around the need to get the most interesting element of the story – it’s science fictional idea – out into the open as soon as possible. As opposed to the shock ending, you might call this a shock opening.

This story starts with a classic hook: ‘Instantly, he remembered dying.’ The opening paragraphs build on this with a sense of mystery combined with a vivid description of the experience of death from pneumonia.
It had become rapidly darker, and then, only then, had he realised that these were to be his last minutes. He had tried dutifully to say Pauline’s name, but his memory contained no record of the sound – only the rattling breath, and of the film of sootiness thickening in the air, blotting out everything for an instant.
By end of this section we know something of the very basics of what’s happening – some one’s returned to life – but only enough to intrigue us further.

Accordingly, the next structural element is the science bit, where we learn the ground rules of the apparently magical event depicted in the shocking opening. In this story, we learn that the resurrected character is none other than the late romantic composer Richard Strauss. He’s been returned to life to write music again, although the experimental value of this isn’t made clear at first. This is where the story really begins, and what happens next depends on what we’ve established in those first two paragraphs. You can see this structure in The Quest for St Aquin, which later settled down into a quest story.

Like a lot of futuristic fiction at the time, satire occupies a large part of this story’s attention. Music is unrecognisable to Strauss, and is now dominated by composers who use a device like a slide-rule – called a Hit Machne – to generate music. If that sounds eerily close to the truth, check this out:
Very few of the modern composers, it developed, wrote their music at all. A large bloc of them used tape, patching together snippets of tone and sound snipped from other tapes, superimposing one tape on another, and varying the results by twirling an elaborate array of knobs this way or that.
There’s a funny swipe at science fiction, too:
By far the largest body of work being produced, however, fell into a category misleadingly called ‘science-music’. The term reflected nothing but the titles of the works, which dealt with space flight, time travel and other subjects of a romantic or an unlikely nature. There was nothing in the least scientific about the music, which consisted of a melange of clich├ęs and imitations of natural sounds, in which Strauss was horrified to see his own time-distorted and diluted image.
Ultimately, though, this story is a rumination on the nature of artistic genius. The satire doesn’t quite overwhelm all that, and the intelligent subject matter definitely elevates this one above the sorts of story that typified the History of the Science Fiction Magazine.

Themes: Resurrection, future music, science fiction, the nature of artistic genius, vain artistic folly.


  1. "A large bloc of them used tape, patching together snippets of tone and sound snipped from other tapes, superimposing one tape on another, and varying the results by twirling an elaborate array of knobs this way or that."

    Which, to be fair, is also a large amount of the musical canon around the world. Tchaikovsky's "Scherzo a la Russe", for example, or the Honkyoku collection in Japan. And adapting other kinds of music (and responding to contemporary composers like Haydn) was a big part of Mozart's whole schtick.

    Having said all that, Robin Thicke.

  2. Oh, absolutely. This little snippet doesn't do the music element of the story any justice, it's all rather clever. I'm sure Blish is thinking of Stockhausen and Varese etc (although you'd think Strauss would have known about some of that stuff and perhaps not been all that surprised)

    Robin Thicke would be a product of the Hit Machine, I'd think.

    Have you read Blish's Black Easter, by the way?

  3. Oh, what I meant to say is I was just surprised how accurately it described a certain kind of quite serious modern music like Aphex Twin or Scanner. It's the sort of thing you here quite a bit on Late Junction.

  4. Ugh, I mean '...hear quite a bit...'


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