Louise Marley is a recovering opera singer who writes science fiction and fantasy. Her science fiction has twice won the Endeavour Award, and she’s been shortlisted for the Nebula, the Campbell, and the Tiptree Awards. Her publications include the three books of The Horsemistress Saga, an omnibus edition of The Singers of Nevya, and Mozart’s Blood, the story of a vampire opera singer. Coming uo in August 2011 is her new time-travel novel, The Brahms Deception.

Classical Music in Science Fiction and Fantasy

If fantasy and science fiction movies like 2001 and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars can feature classical music scores-some existing, like the Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra for 2001, or some created, like Howard Shore’s gorgeous compositions for LOTR-then why is classical music missing in novels? This is the question that begins a lot of panels on the topic of music in speculative fiction.

There are plenty of other examples of music in fantastic fiction. Medieval fantasies abound, of course, with bards and folk harpists. Star Trek often refers to Klingon opera, and although this is an imaginary genre, an opera all in the Klingon language made its debut in 2010 in The Hague. L.E. Modesitt’s Spellsong Cycle is a portal fantasy in which an opera singer finds herself in a land where song has magical power, a theme I explored myself with The Singers of Nevya. In Noir, K.W. Jeter-a devoted opera fan-made reference to Wagner by naming a series of science fictional weapons after characters in The Ring.

All of this, however, is not the same as featuring actual composed, classical music. There are good reasons for that.

The principal and most insurmountable reason is portability. It’s the rare science fiction or fantasy novel that doesn’t involve some sort of journey, and transporting a classical orchestra, even of the small chamber variety, is both complicated and expensive. Many of the instruments themselves-a piano, a classical harp, kettle drums, double basses-are heavy and large.

Another reason is familiarity with the music. Readers, like the general population, naturally tend to seek out the music they already enjoy. If they read references to music they don’t recognize, will they find it affecting? An unscientific estimate assesses the portion of the population who prefer classical music to be about three per cent. This seems much too small to me, but then I move in circles where classical music is part of everyday life. It’s true, though, that many fans have told me all they know about opera they learned from my novel Mozart’s Blood. I’m afraid not that many of them decided to actually go to an opera after reading it, though I offer suggestions for first-time opera goers on my web site.

The third reason, and I think one that stops many writers from trying to incorporate classical music into their fiction, is the old adage that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s hard. If you don’t know and understand the music, it is all but impossible. If that three per cent figure is even in the vicinity of an actual statistic, it follows that a tiny percentage of fantasy and science fiction writers are also classical musicians, comfortable with writing about that genre of music.

There are some, though. Greg Bear is one, and his novel Infinity Concerto explores the power of music with a physics slant. K. W. Jeter, as mentioned, is something of an authority on classical music, and when he uses it in his work, he knows what he’s doing. L.E. Modesitt not only loves and understands classical music, but is married to an opera singer. As a former concert and opera singer, I’ve been able to draw on my musical background repeatedly for my novels. I’m not sure we can call it a subgenre-yet. I’m afraid that three per cent figure may hold us back. But we can keep trying.

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