On Spec, Spring 1998

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"In the Court of the Crimson King" by Gerald L. Truscott
"Instrument of Death" by Edo van Belkom
"Patience" by Michael Vance
"The Vivaldi Connection" by Susan MacGregor
"Music Monkey" by David Chato
"Raven Song" by Marcie Lynn Tentchoff
"Whyte Laydie" by Kate Riedel
"Duende" by Apollonia Leaf

The theme supposedly binding together the contents of this issue of On Spec is music. All of the fiction, not to mention the editorials, are, in one way or another, about music. All speculative extrapolations about culture interest the anthropologist in me, and imaginations about the arts of the future are particularly fascinating. What will our descendants listen to, on the descendants of our stereos? Did Einsturzende Neubauten open a doorway to the future with their prophetic rock-musique concerte, or will the youth of 2020 be trapped, as we appear to be, in yet another retro movement?

It is sadly tempting, given the contents of this issue of the Canadian journal of speculative fiction, to assume the latter. My initial musings were pushed to the side by the fact that none of the diverse stories in this volume are actually set in the future. But still I get a glimmer of an answer, and that is that there is nothing new under the sun.

I don't know why, but in reading almost every story collected here, I had the feeling I was reading, not just old words, but old thoughts. Nothing really surprised me or shocked me. Perhaps that was because each story included "recommended listening," putting at least some of its influences up front. Or maybe the author of Ecclesiastes was right. Maybe the problem with "special themes" is that they are by-and-large already tried and tired.

Not that these stories don't try, and even succeed, in entertaining. The intriguing atmosphere and structure of Gerald L. Truscott's "In the Court of the Crimson King" lends the story an elan that almost allows it to transcend its nearly-indecipherable plot. In the land of Banisvahd a strange, alien influence – in the person of a yellow-clad jester – has given one lord the power to become a tyrant. After destroying the previous king, the Green, Morec the Crimson holds a tournament to display his might. The warriors – siars – of all the other lords attend, as usual, ready to participate in the rituals of combat and singing that define their power. What they find is that the Red King, and his sinister allies, needing no such forum to display their power – and allowing no roads for rebellion – have done away with music.

Edo van Belkom, in "Instrument of Death," has written a story I'm sure I've read a thousand times before, about a mystical violin whose incomparably beautiful voice kills nearby listeners. While it isn't a novel theme, and the ending is no surprise, the story is well-enough written to pass muster. Nope, didn't learn anything, here. But I enjoyed the prose and even found time, in these short seven pages, to sympathize with the characters.

Michael Vance, in "Patience," likewise does not push the envelope anywhere, but he didn't leave me groping for the remote control, either. Surly Telemund Bowes and his retarded partner Jonas travel the dusty roads of a post-apocalypse Earth, performing for their suppers as latter-day bards. Their half-assed excuse for music is the best they – and their audiences – can do. Until the young girl Patience joins them.

Bonnie Blake pursues a different angle in her story "Bouquet." The monologue delivered to her brother, Peter (a minister), by a prisoner condemned to die, this story explores the culture of the aliens whose bodies remain at Roswell. These peace-loving folk return to claim their dead, communicating by music that their community – "the choir" – is only kept whole by the constant renewal of the dead within the living by "germliving." There isn't a heck of a lot about music in this story, actually, but it introduces an interesting alien afterlife.

"The Vivaldi Connection" by Susan MacGregor continues the exploration of the musical life of plants. Antagonized by her lab-partner, Rake, Laura is researching her deeply-held contention that plants "sing." There is some kind of connection between her rare peace of mind, the classical music she plays for her lab specimens, the frequencies she records coming from them, and… something else. Finding the fourth term of the equation will require more resources than just Laura can bring to bear on the problem, but may result in transcendence. The story comes to a satisfying ending and has to be considered one of the strongest in the volume.

David Chato's "Music Monkey" is not the greatest follow-up to MacGregor's excellent offering. It's not that bad a story, and might have seemed a little more significant in a different part of the magazine. But coming where it does, this story about young Manny Locks' music-writing computer program didn't do much for me. There are some amusing interchanges between the muses, who must contend with the spiritual implications of Locks' mechanized dominion over creativity, but what kind of ending can a story about gods vs. machines come to other than a "deus ex machina?"

"Raven Song" might have done well paired with "Patience." In this story Marcie Lynn Tentchoff follows a more conventional fantasy bard, Rook, who has attached himself to the young traveler Jastine. Jastine is on the hardly legend-making quest of trying to catch up with a silk merchant. But Tentchoff's story shows how the bard picks up, and contributes to, greatness-in-the-making.

Kate Riedel's "Whyte Laydie" has to be reckoned, with "the Vivaldi Connection," the best story in the volume. In it Josh Wingate, alone – or so he believes – in the snow-bound farm-house in which he first met his ex-wife Gloria, and his real love, her sister Ida, struggles with the weather and with painful memories while he rebuilds the banjo that helped bring them all together. This story is leisurely and mystical, filled with subtleties of plot and character.

The final entry is Apollonia Leaf's slender "Duende." Set in Santa Monica of the sixties, this story is an interlude in the life of a vampire whose talents may include the guitar, but whose only real music, of course, is blood. The story adds nothing to the already hyper-mythologized "lives" of vampires, but it does entertain with its unlikely coupling of vampire and sixties lore.

Entertaining is what the journal does, precisely. No more, no less. Perhaps I was only disappointed in being merely entertained because music, like writing, can do so much more.

Matt Nadelhaft studied anthropology at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. he lives and works in New York, and is a regular contributor to Tangent.