9 Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories about Music
Sarah Pinkser recommends fiction about otherworldly bands, songs, and concerts
Translating one medium into another is tricky. Music is music and art is art and dance is dance; to try to convey the power of another art in fiction is its own sleight-of-hand.
My own first novel takes on that challenge. In A Song For A New Day, musician Luce Cannon was on the cusp of making it big when escalating violence caused the government to pass congregation laws, preventing public gatherings of any sort. In the new After, she has to carve her own space, playing illegal shows. The second main character, Rosemary Laws, grew up on a remote wind farm in the After, and has never known anything other than virtual life–until she gets a new job that requires her to actually venture out in the world. It’s a novel of music and community, which to me are interconnected.
As a musician and an author myself, I love it when an author manages to convey music well in prose. I haven’t had a chance to read Annalee Newitz’s new book The Future of Another Timeline yet, which I’m betting should be on this list, but here are a bunch of novels and stories that I thought managed to capture music well in fiction, whether they’re talking about otherworldly bands, songs and collaborations that could’ve been, or the concert to end all concerts.
Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
The rest of this list isn’t ordered, but I can’t imagine this book will ever slide off the top of my list of music done well in fiction. The book is told as an oral history of the Fairport Convention-standing Windhollow Faire, a band I found so believable that I looked them up at least twice while reading this, just to make sure they hadn’t actually existed. She perfectly captures the dynamics of a band holed up to record in a creepy English manor. I loved the combination of Gothic creepiness and “whatever-happened-to…”
Glimpses by Lewis Shiner
I haven’t read this since high school, but it had a profound effect on me at the time. The protagonist, Ray Shackleford, is a washed-up music lover whose own music career never happened. I don’t remember the time travel mechanism that takes him back to the sixties, but he is able to connect with a series of musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and the Beatles, and get recordings of their lost or misrecorded music as it was meant to be, starting with an acoustic version of “The Long And Winding Road.” This came out before some of these lost recordings ended up appearing in our world—I don’t think anyone anticipated Brian Wilson actually releasing Smile—but Shiner, a musician as well as an author, captures and conveys the musical moments well, even for those of us without 60s nostalgia.
“Yard Dog” in Fiyah! Magazine by Tade Thompson
I’m going to cheat and include two short stories from Fiyah! Magazine’s excellent music issue last year. “Yard Dog” is about jazz musicians and a trumpet that maybe should not be blown. I love when music stories echo the genres they touch upon, and this story feels like 1940s jazz. It picks up some other things really nicely too, like the fact that most musicians see an interesting instrument and itch to get their hands on it. The description of the first time Yard plays his horn in the club echoes accounts of the first time New York heard Louis Armstrong. I love that this comes across like a tall tale, but also a story of joy and wonder. Some great lines too: “Open night is no excuse for bad jazz.”
Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin
Some of this novel hasn’t aged very well, starting with most of its portrayals of women. Like Glimpses, it’s nostalgic for a bygone musical and cultural era. That said, it has some very cool elements, starting with the band at the center, the Nazgul, and the paths the various members take. The band dynamics are good, and the outdoor concert that serves as a climax for the novel is every bit as grand and bombastic as it needs to be.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie Sing the Stumps Down Good” in Fiyah! Magazine by LaShawn M. Wanak
Yes, this is the second story on my list from the excellent music issue of Fiyah! Magazine. Technically a novelette, I think. It’s an alternate history of real-life musicians Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie, in which they are exterminators charged with destroying a seeming plague of fungal “stumps” that take on the likeness of people before exploding and killing everyone in the vicinity unless neutralized first. It’s a system accepted by all until Tharpe and Minnie start poking around the edges. Wanak recreates these two women, both of whom deserve to be better known, and conjures a great relationship between the two. It also uses the stumps and exterminators—and the related ban on singing—as a powerful metaphor.
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Moreno-Garcia conjures a powerful music-magic. I love the use of contemporary (okay, 80s) vinyl in the place where other novels have used ancient chants and madrigals. Music has power. I’ve never been to Mexico City, but the setting is used to excellent effect here too, as the narrative moves between the 80s, when the teen protagonists discover magic, and a second timeline twenty years later.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I’ve read a fair number of post-apocalyptic wasteland books, from McCarthy to Kunstler, and they are often joyless in a way that strikes me as deeply unrealistic. I loved that this book envisioned a dire post-apocalypse and still populated it with people who made art. The roving musicians travel under a credo lifted from Star Trek Voyager, stating “Survival is Insufficient.” I had a similar thought that I applied to my own novel, A Song For A New Day. People need music. People have always needed music. We clap our hands if we don’t have instruments; we raise our voices. This book leavened darkness with purpose.
“Three Voices” in Uncanny Magazine by Lisa Bolekaja
Composer Andre Irving stops caring that he was tricked by a friend into attending a street festival when a singer named Chocolate Tye blows him away. He knows she’s the only one to sing the difficult “Three Voices,” a piece his father had started and he had finished. Except the piece has plans of its own… Bolekaja does an excellent job of capturing both performance and the sweat that goes into getting music right.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I’m not sure if this fully qualifies as a music book, but it features a music exec and an aging rock star, so I’ll allow it. I’m also stretching things by calling it SFF, but parts of it take place in the near future, so again, I’ll allow it. I loved the strange non-linear structure and the way it somehow cohered, and the way the narrative flitted between characters, spotlighting one person and then letting her fade into the backing band until she appeared again in the background of someone else’s spotlight. I love the way we meet characters in their youth and their faded glory, and sometimes both at once (the goon in the title is time, and it isn’t a spoiler to say time visits everyone). On a further musical note, if I remember correctly, the powerpoint chapter manages to talk about songs that fade out until you think they’re over and then explode again, and then the book literally did exactly that thing, which I wouldn’t have thought possible for a book.