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[GUEST POST] Louise Marley on Classical Music in Science Fiction and Fantasy

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.

8 Comments on [GUEST POST] Louise Marley on Classical Music in Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. Bill from PA // June 13, 2011 at 1:05 pm //

    SF / Fantasy led me into classical music – the soundtrack from 2001 was my first classical album and Tolkien turned out to be a gateway to Wagner’s Ring. My interest in classical music quickly surpassed my interest in SF; I’ve returned to SF / F occasionally, but have constantly listened to music and sought new musical discoveries and insights. Here are some SF/F novels I can think of which involve classical music:

    Tintagel by Paul H. Cook – A novel I wasn’t too enthusiastic about as SF but which does contain a lot of references to 20th century orchestral music (each chapter title refers to a different work).

     A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – Slooshy some lovely Ludwig Van, droogs.

    Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – The title refers to a song by John Dowland. PKD worked in a record store for a number of years and was a fan of classical music. According to Ann R. Dick’s memoir, the novel A Crack in Space, which I haven’t yet read, contains a scene based on a concert by Harry Partch which Dick attended.

    Expecting Someone Taller by Tom Holt – a comic novel in which the characters from Wagner’s Ring interact with modern day Britons. Holt also wrote Flying Dutch, likely another Wagnerian inspiration, which I haven’t read.

  2. I love the way Louise Marley incorporates classical music, including opera, into her stories.

    Speaking of opera, Marion Zimmer Bradley was a lifelong enthusiast, so when Jennifer Roberson edited a tribute anthology (“Return to Avalon”), I knew I had to write an opera story. In the course of solving a murder mystery, my singer “channels” noteworthy operas throughout their history, ending with the “Phantom of the Opera” theme (at which point, the villain breaks down and sobs out his confession). It was such a hoot to write!

  3. The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear feature some brilliant musical moments. when kvothe earns his “pipes” in the eolian… it had a lot of pathos, sure, but i have not read a music scene quite that touching in a while…

  4. The original Rollerball — the one starring James Caan — had an all classical music soundtrack.

  5. Louise Marley is my favorite female author.

    She not only incorporates musical themes, I think her understanding of classical music makes her writing flow seamlessly. I can usually identify an author’s devices & it distances me from the writing, but with her novels I am completely absorbed in the story.

  6. Thank you for the post!


    To add to the “classical music in a genre movie” list, you can add A Clockwork Orange.


    Oh, and although its only tangentially genre (with a hint of magic), what about The Red Violin?



  7. A great fantasy series that incorporates quite a bit of music is Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody Trilogy.  A great story overall, but the music really hooked me.  Speaking as a musician, the music part of it was handled really well, probably because Haydon is also a musician.

  8. Ah, I want to read Jeter’s Noir even more now.  everything I think about that novel sounds very cool.


    I don’t suppose The Mouse’s music in Dahlgren’s Nova quite counts. I’m not sure I can even recall what kind of music the sensory syrynx produced.

    In film, you can’t quite forget The 5th Element and the Diva Dance aria(?).  That was the big entertainment draw, right?  Mainstream opera.

    Did The Moravecs discuss music in the Dan Simmons books? I know they discussed Proust and Shakespeare, but maybe there were side conversations I’m forgetting. 

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