Rock music has a lot to answer for. Hairstyles, twerking, blasted eardrums… and a lot of fiction. Paula Guran hasn’t collected quite all the rock’n’roll inspired short speculative fiction in Rock On, but she’s had a good crack at collecting some of the best.
These stories involve music creators, players, fans and management; they’re set now, back then, and sometime soon. While most of the stories definitely stand pretty all by themselves, there are also some clear patterns that develop when music is a guiding force.
Can music save your mortal soul? (Sorry, it was inevitable.) Howard Waldrop’s Flying Saucer Rock and Roll suggests maybe it can try, and maybe it will fail but the trying is worth it – music is always worth it. Bradley Denton’s We Love Lydia Love paints music creation as a necessary catharsis for a tortured soul. On the flip side, the old Robert Johnson selling-your-soul-for-fame story is a natural one for speculative fiction to take up, and is reflected in Elizabeth Hand’s and Graham Masterson’s very different stories.
Bruce Sterling in We See Things Differently suggests a horrible kind of salvation through music, but also destruction – which is another major theme of music + fantasy or science fiction: music, and its creation, has a dark side – which critics (not the magazine ones but the ones that don’t understand) have always feared. Michael Swanwick’s The Feast of Saint Janis fulfils all those fears of rock music bringing out the animal in people, possibly taking a line from the ancient play The Bacchae by Euripides, and also plays on the two-sides-of-one-coin nature of salvation/destruction.
Greg Kihn and Poppy Z Brite take the darker line too, especially riffing off the sometimes fevered connection between music and performer, while Edward Bryant’s Stone and David J Schow’s Odeed go to the nth degree in the performer-crowd feedback loop. Del James’ Mourningstar has the sort of music that makes Alice Cooper look like Pat Boon.
Technology has long been an intimate part of rock and roll, from Bob Dylan’s controversial electrification to Japan’s vocaloid stars such as Hatsune Miku. Bryant’s story plays on the danger of technology in music, as does Pat Cadigan in Rock On. Alastair Reynolds’ At Budokan doesn’t play on technology in music so much as using external technology in order to create the Next Big Thing (and I do mean create, and big, in the most literal sense).
And then there are the stories where music is the great definer of culture, where life revolves around music and if you don’t get the references then you just don’t fit. F Paul Wilson has a time traveller using music to get rich, creating a rather dangerous feedback loop of sound, while Mercenary by Lawrence C Connolly imagines music as pure manipulation. John Shirley posits a time when your preferred music is your identity – and, of course, whether you can change that.
In Charles de Lint’s That was Radio Clash, the music isn’t inherent to the story but it is vital to the world-building. And when rock music is seen as dangerous, you just know that those young uns will do anything to hear it: thus, Lucius Shepard’s … How My Heart Breaks when I Sing this Song….
This anthology has magic and aliens and Loki; the past and the future; successful America and America destroyed; music as solace and music as destruction. It references Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Goethe, the Clash, Janis Joplin, the Five Satins, and bands that have never existed. Paula Guran, in her liner notes, quotes from music critic Nat Hentoff to show the similarities between rock music and speculative fiction: they both “make up lies that tell us something about the truth of being human.”