Shineanthology’s Weblog

An anthology of optimistic, near future SF

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


  Madeline Ashby wrote @

What I like about this post is that it articulates a lot of what I’ve been feeling lately. I find it really hard to “follow the rules,” and I’m wondering if I should just ditch them altogether in certain circumstances. The industry doing the way it is, everything I do is equally likely to be rejected. So if there’s a time to experiment, it’s now.

  gillian wrote @

A great post! Made me want to hear this music. I will go and look if I can find it after I’ve finished with work.
I agree about needing “contrast and more dynamic range” in SF writing. It is also true that contrasts, when they are used cleverly, are producing a much better effect than a smooth situation which is often tiresome… even boring.
The most interesting characters are the ones with contrasts, subtly changing from ” light” to “dark”. An excellent SF character is Gene Wolf’s Severian (the torturer who ended up becoming Autarch of Urth). He has courage but he is not a superhero; he is clever but he is not an erudit; he is sensitive but knows when he has to fight and defend himself.
One of the best SF stories I have read is Bruce Sterling’s ” The Blimmey’s Strategy” ( reprinted in the Best SF of 2005 if I am not wrong). There is this nun who is a genius in business;a chief of the order of the assassins who is a poet and a romantic; a rather kind alien who is in love with a disgusting creature, the love story between them being as moving as Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare.
I have no technical knowledge about music, but I love all kinds of music and it is true that the contrasts – especially the melancholy-joy contrast – is creating much stronger feelings than a uniform music without ups and downs. At least, it is so for me.

  gillian wrote @

i was able to find the music you write about. You are right, it is full of contrasts and has an upbeat tone. I liked it, although I must confess that it is not the kind of music I am usually listening to.

  Jason Stoddard wrote @

Really, really interesting counterpoint between taking chances musically and taking chances in fiction. Very few SF novels seem to rise above the level of Musak. They do the prose thing very well, the sentences are wonderful and literary, but I find myself thinking, “Yeah, cool, got it, move on, got the point, will you frigging *move on?*” and then either skipping ahead or putting down the book. In fact, I find it very hard to finish most SF novels these days.

Then again, I’ve been criticized for trying to put novels into 20K novella form (Far Horizon), I’ve written 15K pieces with 2 timelines, 5 different POVs, and 10 important characters (Winning Mars), and I saw no problem switching between two different POVs, including that of an emergent artificial intelligence, in a 1.6K story (Moments of Brilliance.) So I may be clinically insane.

  shineanthology wrote @

Basically the majority of SF nowadays is rather conservative. Both in tone and content. Both in shape and form.

What I see al lot — both in the slushpile and in published stories — is that writers try very hard to confirm to the unwritten rules of SF writing (and for authors that are starting out it’s not a wrong way to begin with), and then — once they’ve mastered those rules — stick to them no matter what.

I still like to think that SF is the literature of change. Not just the change that will come to society in the future, but also change in the way that people will read SF.

Roughly speaking — I am generalising greatly here to get a point across — it seems that a lot of SF is written by and for middle-class baby boomers who wish to return to that magic moment (of, say, when they were 13 or so years old) when they discovered SF, and desire SF that reflects this moment.

In the meantime, the world has moved on, and if SF doesn’t reflect this, it will become irrelevant and die out slowly.

SF should dare to experiment, both in presentation and subject matter. I’m getting so tired of the idea that an SF author must use ‘ clear and transparent’ prose (whatever *that* is) when the subject matter is wildly speculative. And the ‘no-multiple-PoV-in-a-short-story’ rule. And the ‘no-change-of-perspective-in-a-short-story’ rule. And the ‘ tone-should-be-consistent-throughout-a-short-story’ rule. Etcetera and so forth.

I know such stories are being written (see indeed Madeline Ashby and Jason Stoddard…;-), but are published but all too rarely. So yes: SF publishers must take risks as well.

And as Jason knows: as a writer I try to mix experimental writing (and take that with a pinch of salt: what the SF mainstream considers ‘experimental’ has already been done more than 50 years ago in literature) with extremely speculative content. So Jason: see you in the madhouse!

  gillian wrote @

I thought that music was used as an example to show how important contrasts are to create an optimistic climate. I don’t think it is a good idea to go and compare music and SF too closely.
Maybe I missed a point.
Was there a question about a madhouse?

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