Shineanthology’s Weblog

An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

Archive for February 8, 2009

Music that makes you feel optimistic, part 3

Your monthly dose of musical inspiration (I know, it’s not quite monthly yet. As soon as I have Outshine running smoothly I intend to put up posts here with more regularity).

Images and Words_1

Dream TheaterImages and Words

Actually, I don’t play this album that often, which might be one of the reasons that I still like it so much when I do put it in my CD player. If it had had the spontaneity and spunk of When Day and Dream Unite, and the sheer production values of Awake, then it would have been a huge classic. It’s a classic, nevertheless, albeit just that little farther away from perfection.

For one, I can understand drummer Mike Portnoy when he says he has troubles listening to Images and Words because of the triggered, electronic drum sound. It’s indeed a far cry from the fat, thundering drum roll that opens “6:00” on Awake. For another, though, the production as a whole is a step up from When Day and Dream Unite.

I also recall an interview in (Dutch magazine) Aardschok where Portnoy mentioned that David Prater — the producer — had them cut “Pull Me Under” from a much longer version to the 8:15 it is now. I think that was a good decision: “Pull Me Under” became a cult hit and brought Dream Theater in touch with a larger audience.

Images and Words_2

I love the superb interplay between the music and the lyrics (especially in the Kevin Moore songs), the way light (or the play of light) is woven through the album like a red thread, and — obviously — the upbeat tone.  The album’s greatest strength, though, lies in its great melodic range and the sheer dynamics that implement it.

The dynamics in a song are immensely important (and are under serious threat ever since the loudness war rages through the music industry), and I think Dream Theater composed a number of eminent examples throughout the album, to wit:

  • The opening chords of “Pull Me Under”: a classic example of how a sequence of higher notes following a lower one evokes a surge of optimism;
  • The way the buildup from the refrain (‘lost in the clouds’) to the pre-chorus (‘this world is spinning around me’) to the actual chorus (‘pull me under’), in combination with the speeded-up interchange between keyboards, guitar and pounding rhythm section both mimick a feeling of floating in the sky, and an increased feeling of spinning, to the sheer guitar euphoria preceding the chorus;
  • How “Surrounded” manages to evoke a feeling of rising from the darkness, of eventually being surrounded by light;
  • The intro of “Metropolis, Part 1”: a simple yet effective keyboard sequence contrasted with a threatening guitar riff, the subtle intrusion of drums. An opener rife with tension and promise, and the song delivers;
  • The fine balance of “Metropolis, part 1” between virtuosity and songwriting: on the one hand it constantly threatens to become an indulgence of musical showmanship, while on the other hand the rapid tempo changes and instrumental bravura make the song work;
  • The tremendous build-up in the instrumental part of “Learning to Live”: first with the acoustic guitar and drums crescendoing into an exalting rush, then with the piano preluding the second rise into ecstasy;

There is much more in Images and Words, but these are the most telling examples. On top of that, the band makes this combination of a musical magnum opus through a lyrical pièce de résistance seem almost effortless. Like tour de force writing, though, it is anything but.  Also, the album has an overall upbeat tone which I think is part of its enduring allure. Which brings me to the use of dynamics in SF writing.


I think we need more, much more, contrast and a greater dynamic range in SF writing. As Kim Stanley Robinson already mentioned at the New Scientist SF special, SF tends too much to extremes. It’s either dark or light; black or white; relentless dystopia or all-out utopia. Much too little in between.

That, in my humble opinion, is plain wrong: a positive development shines much brighter when it takes place against a dark background; a descent into chaos is more involving if there are a lot of good people trying to prevent it. SF isn’t quite reflecting the complexity of the real world: in reality — with precious little exceptions — things aren’t all bad, or all good, but rather a highly intricate mix of those (also depending on what one finds good or bad). A flatness of tone, a lack of dynamics not dissimilar from the loudness wars in music. In order to grab attention, everybody’s trying to scream from the top of their lungs, drawing what might have been a marked pessimism in contrast with a value-neutral world into relentless dystopia and apocalypse wars: my apocalypse is bigger and better than your apocalypse.

It’s not just a lack of chiaroscuro in theme and subject matter: it’s also the writing itself that so often lacks in dramatic tension. It seems that consistency of tone, tense and viewpoint have become sacrosanct, and this has led to a lot of fiction lacking that something special, that ingredient X, that je ne sais qua that would make it unforgettable. To paraphrase my good friend Lou Anders: a lack of exuberance.

chiaroscuro_6It’s possibly a matter of writers not willing to deviate from the lessons they learned (often the hard way, admitedly): don’t change your point of view (PoV) in a short story, keep the tense the same throughout the narrative (and preferably use past tense, as most SF is quite conservative) and don’t, for the love of Pete, change the tone of your short fiction. It leads to pieces that are perfectly competent, but not memorable.

Therefore, dare to rise to the next level: experiment. If you’re aiming for a ‘middle-of-the-road’ career, then that’s exactly what you’ll be getting.

So shift a PoV, tilt reality to an oblique angle, change the tone of your narrative and change the tune to which your characters sing. Such contrasts can — if applied judiciously — build great tension arcs in a story. Combine them with a change of meaning — like, for example, the way the Rush lyrics of “Force Ten” (from the Hold Your Fire album) shift from ‘Look in … to the eye of the storm’ to ‘Look in … look the storm in the eye’ and so support a dramatic viewpoint shift — and you have dynamite. Or you might fall flat on your face, but at least you tried.

So imbue your fiction with an air of joie de vivre, infuse it with a huge dynamic range, and inject it with a change of meaning. A young band (at the time) like Dream Theater did it with their music, and the results were spectacular: why are so few new, young writers trying it?

Hold Your Fire