Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century; he presently lives a little way west of London, England, with a beautiful wife and two small children. He is a writer with a day-job (professor at Royal Holloway, University of London). The first of these two employments has resulted in numerous published sf novels, the most recent being Swiftly, Yellow Blue Tibia and New Model Army. (Coming soon is By Light Alone.) The second of these has occasioned such critical studies as The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006). Adam is also a contributor to the upcoming online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.


On Science Fiction Music

Adam Roberts

The second edition of that cornerstone of genre scholarship, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls 1994), is currently in the process of being updated ready for a third edition (forthcoming 2011; eds Clute, Nicholls, Langford and Sleight, and published by Gollancz in association with the SF Gateway). The first two editions have a general entry on ‘music’ but no specific entries on individuals or groups. I agreed to update the general entry and to write the various specific entries. This turned into a fair-sized job of work: I ended up writing 140-or-so separate entries, most fairly brief but some lengthy, on every SF musician and composer I could think of, from ‘Abarax’, ‘Acid Mothers Temple’ and ‘The Alan Parsons Project’ to ‘Zager and Evans’ and ‘Frank Zappa.’

One preliminary aspect of such a project is deciding which songs, albums and musical suites merit discussion in an Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and which do not. This was a practical consideration, but it tangled me in one of the least edifying problematics of science fiction criticism, how do we define SF?


It’s fair to say that critics tend to identify features from within the internal logic of the built-worlds of the text as the salient. One influential approach is Darko Suvin’s ‘novum’, the ‘new’ thing, not present in the world we actually inhabit, that differentiates SF texts from other sorts of literature. What interests me is: the novum is always part of the content of the text, never of the form: an artefact (spaceship, robot, time machine) or an aspect of the imagined world of the text not present in the world the readers actually inhabit. This definition depends upon a number of assumptions that are not so much buried as taken so solidly for granted by the critics as not even to be recognised as assumptions; amongst them the idea that SF texts have ‘content’ as distinct from form, and that SF is specifically a description of a mode of representational art-that, to put it another way, if a work of art does not represent anything (does not, for instance, represent something science-fictional) then it is not possible to determine whether it is SF or not.

Writing about SF music has encouraged me to question these underlying assumptions about genre. I began by selecting for inclusion musical texts that included some unmistakeable reference to the sorts of things SF Fans all agree are ‘sf’. David Bowie’s breakthrough single “Space Oddity” (for instance) describes the voyage of an astronaut through the elation of his launch to his elegant despair at being marooned in space. Hawkwind have released a great many individual songs and concept albums that, in their titles and lyrics, deploy recognisably science-fictional tropes and props, from In Search of Space (1971) and Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975) through dozens of albums to Space Bandits (1990) and Alien 4 (1995). And again: many musicians have adapted classic SF novels into songs, or indeed entire albums. For example: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End has been refashioned in song form by bands as diverse as Genesis. Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd and Van der Graaf Generator. In these sorts of cases, it seems uncontentious to discuss them under the umbrella of science fiction.

But this, I think, is where it gets interesting. There are cases in which a science-fictional reputation attaches itself to a particular performer, such that music they produce is taken as SF even if it contains no deictic titular or lyric genre content. Take the prolific American jazz-musician Sun Ra, and his band The Arkestra (the group released records under many variants of this name, including ‘The Sun Ra Arkestra’, ‘The Solar Myth Arkestra’, ‘The Blue Universe Arkestra’, ‘The Astro Infinity Arkestra’, ‘The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra’, and many others). All Sun Ra’s many releases-his discography is complex, but there may be more than a hundred titles-have the same theme: a message for the human race articulating, in musical form, the escape-route from Earthly discord towards a cosmic spiritual oneness of freedom and joy. Sun Ra claimed to have acquired his wisdom during a sojourn on Saturn, whence he had been transported by alien intelligences in the 1930s (or, according to some sources, the early 1950s). His account of this time is detailed, and shares many features with other benign alien abduction narratives, although preceding the cultural vogue for such things by a decade or more. Ra certainly believed literally in this story, and both lived and worked according to the principles of the science-fictional philosophy he derived from the experience.

But here’s the thing: almost all of Ra’s music is instrumental. It gives the listener no lyric clues as to SF content; yet it seems to me difficult to read his music as anything other than SF. Often the titles of tracks and albums provide some extratextual nudges: we can, for instance, presumably take “Tapestry from an Asteroid” (on The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, 1961) and We Travel the Spaceways (1959, as by ‘Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra’) as science-fictional. But musically speaking there is little to differentiate the piquantly atmospheric improvisation of that music from (say) “El is a Sound of Joy” (on Sound of Joy, 1968). Is it only a process of arbitrary association that renders the latter text science-fictional also?

A more testing category is instrumental electronica. I decided to cover a good deal of this sort of music in my entries for the encyclopedia, despite-often-there being little or in some cases nothing specifically SF-contextual about the texts themselves to locate them securely within the genre. Some examples: In the case of ‘Biosphere’ (the name under which Norwegian musician Geir Jenssen, records) I found that SF-ness inhered less in the oblique album titles and more by the music itself. Biosophere’s atmospheric and spacious ambient music is wholly lyric-free; and although titles such as Microgravity (1993), Patashnik (1994; the title is Russian Cosmonaut slang for a person lost in space) and Shenzhou (2002, named for the Chinese orbital craft) suggest SF they are hardly explicit. 2004′s Autour de la Lune is a lengthy, minimalist version of Jules Verne’s moon-flight novel. In this case I found SF not just in the title but in the music itself-mostly characterized by a number of harmonic bass drones and long-held horn notes, remarkably effective at conveying the sense of travel through deep space. Is this anything more than a subjective interpretive importation? It certainly cannot be argued on the basis of any kind of musical onomatopoeia, for actual travel through space is perfectly soundless, and certainly doesn’t produce the sonic equivalents of harmonic bass drones and long-held horn notes. What, then?

Of the work of French composer and performer of electronic synthesiser pieces Jean-Michel Jarre, I wrote: ‘There is no explicit sf content to the instrumental suites Oxygene (1976), Equinoxe (1978) and Les Chants Magnétiques (1981) but it is hard to escape the sense that these bleepy, throbbing, soaring soundscapes are aural SF.’ I also discussed the German group Tangerine Dream at some length. This group’s first release, Electronic Meditation (1970) owes much to musique concrète, using cut-and-pasted audio tape to create its effects, and although wholly instrumental I argue that it partakes of a fabulist musical idiom in some sense reminiscent of the New Wave that dominated SF in the late 60s and early 70s-the longest track on the album is the Philip K Dick-like “Journey Through a Burning Brain”. The group’s second release Alpha Centauri (1971) was described by the musicians themselves ‘Komische musik’; and manifests a slightly different style: more fluid and buoyant, sonically correlative, I argue, to an outward urge. In this case we might note that the track titles (“Sunrise in the Third System”, “Fly and Collision of Comas Sola”, “Alpha Centuri”) instruct us to read the music as a narrative of a journey through space; but the same musical idiom is present, without such titlular cues, on Zeit (1972), Phaedra (1974), Rubycon (1975), Stratosfear (1976) and Force Majeure (1979). At what point does it become unsafe to identify the music as sciencefictional? This is what I wrote:

Each of these albums construes a distinctive, organically repetitive instrumental sound, extremely though nonspecifically evocative. This was Tangerine Dream at its most musically effective: an onward-rolling series of spacious tonal atmospheres. In contrast to Kraftwerk’s precise and robotic sound, Tangerine Dream were aiming at a warmer, more expansive and topographic idiom, soundtracking mysterious other worlds, throbbing and spooling-out with a stylish implacability.

Now, it is not immediately obvious to what extent the ‘mysterious other worlds’ I identity can be described as being ‘in’ the music in any sense, and to what extent they are a product of my own sf-saturated brain.

This, then, is the question: to what extent can we ever be justified in talking of instrumental music like this as ‘science fiction’? I have what I think is an answer; but I’ve already gone on longer than I intended.

Tagged with:

Filed under: Music

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!