Size / / /

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O brave new world / That has such bodies in’t!


“So can you do it?”

The artisan hesitates, about to turn the page of the sketchbook given to her by, she is realizing, the most important client she might ever have.

“Not alone,” she says, and her own honesty surprises her. “Most of the design, what you’re asking, it’s not a problem. But the nervework—the neurology, even the chirology, well, we’d need to get a consultant in, but then we always need consultants. It’s the manufacture that might be tricky; depending on how delicate it has to be, I don’t know if there are even any Martian mills that could be trusted with this. We’d have to go to the Moon, maybe.”

“But you can do it?”

“Yes,” says the artisan, “we can do it.”

“Okay,” says the prospective client. “How much, and how long?”

“Eight months,” says the artisan, and shakes her head. “One year, and then give it another eight for the rehabilitation, minimum. Two years maybe you’d be ready for the stage.”

“And the price?”

“I don’t know,” says the artisan. “I honestly don’t. This is very new territory.”

“What’s an upper limit, you’d say? A maximum?”

The artisan pauses, sucks in air as she makes some very rough and very fast calculations. “Six million?” she says. “But that’s if everything—”

“That’s fine,” says her client.

Put the words specialist and somatology together in front of anyone in the (inner, she doesn’t have any idea about the outer) system, and ask for their first immediate association. If they’re honest, they’ll mention sex, very quickly, and if they’re not, they’ll hem and haw, then eventually say something about the circus, or scientific exploration, and then probably try to change the subject.

Is this unfair? Are there citizens of Luna and Mars and Venus and Mercury and the Belt that don’t imagine the clientele of those young and admittedly exclusive boutiques to be almost completely dominated by those in possession of both virtually unlimited wealth and inordinately esoteric kinks? Whose mind doesn’t leap to the latest tabloid scoop about octofucking or rotorgasms?

Maybe a little unfair. The artisan could have been, as they kept on saying, whatever it was she wanted to be. A scholastic Icarus, soaring above her age, solving for x before anyone thought to tell her where it went in the alphabet, obsessing over Belyaev’s foxes when she was supposed to be studying up on the difference between gene and genome, doodling the latest in synthetic optometry instead of paying attention to an unbelievably tedious lecture on the Circle of Willis. She could’ve been anything, and then for a short bleak unhappy while she could’ve been nothing, and then she took her doctorate in somatology and after a few years spent flirting around with fellowships she found her one true love. It gets real annoying real fast, though, whenever she strikes up a conversation with a stranger, that little joke they keep on trying to make when they figure out what she does. She’s considering lying, invented alternative biographies for herself, some in almost embarrassing detail. But here’s the thing: she honestly, really, genuinely, completely, absolutely, unabashedly, unreservedly, loves somatology. She loves it. It saved her life, it saved her life again, and it has never demanded anything from her in exchange for the day she woke in the clunker she still hasn’t upgraded a single inch of—excepting the hands, but they don’t count, everyone swaps hands—aware of herself, the material condition of her carnate self-existence, and it was as if the flat dull grey monochrome of her pre-life had been slashed wide open for colour to come roaring back in one bright furious kaleidoscoping flood of affect. And it’s not that moment, you see, it’s not that moment why she loves somatology so fucking much, not that moment but that it kept on going.

The client is a musician, a pianist. Were she not a pianist of her calibre and concordant stature she would have one other, and likely much less fulfilling, claim to fame: she was born nearly stateless, hardly the first and far from the last infant to be inopportunely delivered aboard a spacecraft mid-transit. So she first knew life as a rare but not unknown anomaly, the sociolegal ambiguities of her brief existence fairly quickly resolved, jus sanguinis rescuing her from the clutches of an extraterritorial limbo, her parents upstanding and unmusical Cartaghans. Oh, they liked Für Elise and Clair de Lune well enough whenever they happened to chance across either of those indelible tunes, probably would have enjoyed most of the Scarlatti or Xi they never heard before their daughter’s first momentous success, and even after were never quite sure what to make of Srivastava’s Areographic or Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. No matter. When they sat their second daughter in front of a piano for those first lessons with a teacher herself barely graduated from conservatory, they were only expecting the standard and much-touted benefits of a musical education, the ordinary accelerations of infant development. They hardly hoped to be writing the first chapters in the biography of “easily one of the brightest and most promising lights in the stable of Martian pianists specializing in the Classical-Romantic continuity and its legacies, even before her (in)famous somatological stunt of 2142.”


It’s not, in principle, a difficult or radical design, and the artisan is a little surprised it’s taken this long for someone to want something like this. The problem, insofar as there is a problem, is the detail, because it’ll be a cythetic, and when cyths depart dramatically from the anthropometric norm it tends to be the nervework that’s first sacrificed. For the usual kinds of cyth, motor and specifically manual control were not priorities. This will obviously not obtain for the pianist, whose only prior experiences with somatology are the standard entoptics and neuroware virtually everyone gets installed after adolescence. They already plotted her native body, ran her through the scans, could probably conjure up her twin without cheating, but translating that knowledge to a cyth is a different thing entirely, even without the requested alterations. The artisan submitted and defended her dissertation on the cythetic medulla spinalis, and although she had not been planning on helming her own studio when she scraped those two-hundred-or-so pages together, she could hardly have chosen a more apposite field on which to make herself an expert, spines not just the literal backbones of most somatological design. So the artisan is a neurologist herself, with her own subspecialty, has another on her team with his own, but even their doubled expertise isn’t quite adequate to their newest client’s needs. Which is partly why, when the pianist’s project is still at the theoretical stages and they’re just finishing up the Europan aquanaut, the artisan flies out to Luna to meet the Castelli Foundation Professor of Synthetic Neurology after catching a conference in Tranquility. The conference isn’t bad, theoretical glimpses at the futures portended by emerging nanotechnologies, and so of little use to the director of a small and operative somatological studio, but she prides herself on keeping as well acquainted with all the cutting-edges and states-of-the-art as can reasonably be expected, and anyway she makes some maybe useful contacts between the papers and presentations, gets someone to buy her a couple drinks when it’s all over. She forgets to set her alarm, oversleeps and nearly misses the train that deposits her in the only Lunar capital built beneath the regolith. Only an hour or so later she is in the offices of Helene Maxwell Danforth, FSom, FLAAS.

Dr Danforth looks every bit the immensely distinguished academic she is, carefully coiffed white hair around a thin, lined face, an almost patrician demeanour. It’s not a test, the artisan has to tell herself.

“Your client isn’t asking for very much,” Dr Danforth says, still inspecting the slate she’s been given. The artisan opens her mouth, realizes she has no idea how much irony she should read into that, and decides maybe instead she should close it.

“You’re concerned about the interfacing,” says Dr Danforth; it’s not quite a question. “Given the nature of the project, there’s absolutely no question of compromising the motor control.” The artisan nods. “But the remainder of the appendicular work, you’re confident you can cover?”

“We have people in-house,” says the artisan. One of them had even studied, briefly, under the Castelli Foundation Professor of Synthetic Neurology, still has the notes from the lectures, but the artisan elects to forego mentioning this. “The external design, even most of the internal, it shouldn’t be a problem. The osteological, myological analogues, we’ve plenty of experience with. It’s just the synaptics, trying to keep the cortical signal as clean as possible, especially in the chirology. For obvious reasons.”

“And the standard solutions are complicated enough,” says Dr Danforth, again with that not-quite-a-question inflection. The artisan swallows a chuckle, tries to tell herself, once more, that it’s not a test. It’s not working.

The pianist is practising Schumann. Geistervariationen, or Ghost Variations. The pianist is aware she has a reputation, in certain circles, of being—not difficult, exactly, but willful, perhaps. Full of will, which is to say, she makes her decisions quickly and firmly, and rarely, if ever, unmakes them. A hard thing to be so famous, you could say, and she would not, because she understands that whatever misapprehensions (if they are misapprehensions, which she is not self-sure enough to think that they must be) some people might have about her personal character, she is still an extraordinarily advantaged individual living an extraordinarily advantaged life, advantages which she doesn’t think she’s come to earn in any real sense, but are only epiphenomena to the particular configuration of genetic providence and environmental fortune so responsible for that capricious thing called talent. Her sister took the same number of lessons as her, practiced the same number of hours, and even if her sister had continued those lessons and kept up with that practice, her sister’s rendition of the Pathétique will never be judged as anything more than competent. Her sister doesn’t mind, and she does, which is perhaps an inversion of how it should go. She tries, in any case, to recognize and acknowledge the enormous gift she did not ask for and does not think she has done anything to deserve and nevertheless tries her best to nurture, the gift which sometimes feels erroneous as much as enormous, like it doesn’t belong to her and she’s only borrowing it, or maybe the other way around, like she is living someone else’s life or someone (something?) else is living hers.

She doesn’t think it’s a problem that will be solved, or dissolved, with the new somatic (she doesn’t really think of it as a problem at all). She asked some of the people in her life what they think: her partner is cautiously okay with it, her parents perplexed and passive-aggressively against it, her sister lovingly indifferent. Her friends are a mix, but even the ones who don’t quite understand are still supportive. Her longest and probably best teacher had surprised her, a moderately distinguished recitalist himself recognized for his subdued, lapidary Brahms; he’d only asked that she remember to drop his name favourably every now and then when she was (even more) rich and famous.

She’s not quite sure what her manager thinks, which is a pity since she likes her manager, all appearances to the contrary. The relationship has long since congealed into easy stereotype, such that she is happy to play the independent, unrestrained (willful, even) creative spirit, and her manager the humourless naysayer responsible for keeping that spirit from getting too unrestrained. The critics note her penchant for the obscure, the outré: she enthrals for two hours with ethereal Schubert and gives Schoenberg for an encore; programs Bach’s preludes and fugues, interwoven with études from contemporary composers. The critics love it, mostly, and the audiences are generally there for the Schubert and Bach anyway, so if she gets more than four bars of applause out of her more abstruse repertoire she counts it as a victory. Her manager does his best to avoid tearing out his hair completely, tries to keep her on the straight and narrow and lucrative. Let’s finish up those Chopin Ballades, he says, and then let’s think about some more Beethoven, make sure she keeps showing off her Ravel, and in the meantime how does she feel about a couple Mozart concerti with that new hotshot conductor from Mercury everyone’s talking about? And maybe, maybe, after she gets through twenty or so “normal” performances without sneaking in any Laskin, she can maybe record a Boulez sonata or whatever half-hour of unprofitable dissonance she can coax out of her Aurengarde. She doesn’t let it bother her; he’s just doing his job, and she’s doing hers. She only wishes she could work up the nerve to ask him about the new body she’s commissioned from that small Martian studio.

It’s not, to be fair, a totally unknown idea in their world. A couple of her colleagues have gone through the somatic shuffle, most recently a clarinettist who opted for an orthetic after a stroke, a monozygote forty years removed, is now shadowed by rumours of meretricious lungs. More infamously, there was a violinist whose formidable technique deserted him somewhere between second and third body, and who now writes about music instead of making it, a specialist on the string quartet with all his rueful authority. It could happen to her, the pianist knows, that when she sits in front of a keyboard reintegrated for the first time, her phrasings will have lost all their fluency, her fingers all their articulate dexterity. Very unlikely, but a possibility nonetheless. To her surprise, she’s not half as afraid as she thought she might be. She (or the gift, or both of them together) had a good run, already made enough to live out an indolent century. She might go into teaching, might go into journalism, might try something else entirely. The somatic will be useless, but that’s fine, just a little more surgery and nobody will be able to tell. She’ll do one more recording before the new somatic arrives, a valediction to and with the hands of her first, an album that very improbably but still possibly might be her last. She’s not sure what might go into it; it’s what she’s practicing the Geistervariationen for. Schumann said the ghosts gave it to him, his own private apparitions whispering their spectral melody into his ear. Partway through his eventual five variations on that theme, Schumann threw himself into the winter cold of the Rhine and was hauled out half-dead to finish the rest. Two years later, a heartbroken Clara Schumann visited her dying husband in a Bonn sanatorium; two days after that he was gone.

So the Geistervariationen are probably Schumann’s swansong, his last complete coherent composition for the piano (and some would quibble with calling it coherent). She’s thinking she might lead with the Geistervariationen, and then the heart of this speculative album could be Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Schwanengesang, which aren’t really a cycle but everyone agrees to pretend otherwise. Few pianists play the Geistervariationen, and even fewer the Liszt Schwanengesang, which should make her critics happy. So to round it all out, and to keep herself from self-parody, she’s thinking she might do the Chopin Barcarolle as a conclusion, even though she’s certain it will give her the greatest anxiety. It’s not exactly that she prefers the more recherché ground because she’ll have less competition there, less opportunity to be compared with some other luminary of the instrument and found wanting, but maybe this gestures close to her own rationale, what she tells herself anyway: that she simply feels like she has something interesting, something more uniquely herself to say, when she goes mapping this relatively undermapped terrain. But to offer her own Barcarolle, arguably the most perfect summation of the life and work of the only musician accorded in the definite as the poet of the piano—it seems daunting to justify when there are already a sea of fine, even sublime interpretations. But she’s never shied away from a challenge, and her manager has been begging her for years to do more Chopin, so maybe his late masterwork might just be exactly the right notes on which to conclude this (hopefully) first half of her discography.

Dr Danforth says she’ll let the artisan know in a couple days. It’s a little frustrating, the non-answer, maybe even more than an explicit refusal, but at least the artisan thinks it’s a genuine request for time to think the proposal over and not just an overpolite way of declining. The artisan hands over her card, her name printed neatly in the centre with its serifs, the name of her studio just beneath, the same font two points larger: Electric Shepherd. Dr Danforth reads it over, and the corners of her mouth quirk upwards, just a little.

Electric Shepherd: even the name is a minor provocation. Its peers and predecessors (this field is too small to speak of competitors) tended towards concise elegance with names like Kirigami or L’Atelier, words called up from some cluttered volume of an aesthetician’s dictionary to summon that aura of rarefied prestige you only got elsewhere in luxury horology or haute couture. Now Electric Shepherd, on the other hand, almost cheerfully ugly in comparison, and probably considerably more informative too, because they more or less told you what they did right there in the name: cyths, and cyths only. With them it was the full somatic or nothing, no prostheses or auxiliaries, they only did complete cythetic bodies, and they did them very, very well. No one left reintegrated and came back with twenty lawyers screaming about breach of contract, partly because the artisan has always been careful to retain the best representation, and partly because Electric Shepherd doesn’t make mistakes. Sometimes they take longer than her initial estimate, and sometimes she’s been overoptimistic with the initial budgeting, sure, sometimes there’s a vascular complication or someone misjudges the dermal estimates, but you get your body in the end, cost overruns and deadlines be damned, you get your nice shiny new steel body and you love it, because Electric Shepherd only does the best work. The worst name in the business, maybe, but the best work. Within a certain set of parameters, yes, but they’re pretty loose parameters, honestly. Just nothing dedicated exclusively to satisfying a fetish (which other places would probably be better for anyway), and nothing too questionable, legally or morally or otherwise. What falls under that latter category, certain clients might want to know? Well, as she was no longer fond of saying, if you have to ask …


The pianist first stepped into their Arikov offices late February, signed early March, and makes her third visit in the middle of July freshly returned from a tour of Venus, playing sonatas with a once-prodigy of the violin now twice her age. Venus always amazes her, not necessarily in a good way. Mars and the Moon run their seasons (mostly) together, alternating summer-winter with increasingly sophisticated interludes of spring and autumn, but the aerostadts seemingly just did whatever they wanted. She’d liked Yunxi best, with its effectively perpetual autumn, and its audiences were probably some of the best in the inbelt (the violinist had agreed), but she’s glad to be back on her home planet if not quite home; her partner had elected not to go in the end, citing an unfortunately timed spike in her workload.

Before her first visit, the pianist had assumed that everyone in Electric Shepherd would sport some kind of obvious somatology, in the same way it’s rare to see inkless skin on the staff at a tattoo parlour. It’s her third now and there are only two she’s met of which this is the case: a scrawny bearded man whose tanned arms end mid-wrist, became instead beautifully wrought silver inlaid with glimmering gold filigree, and a taller woman whose shaved scalp bears three small metal panels the meaning and function of which completely eludes the pianist. The artisan herself had blithely defied the taboo to mention her own current pair of hands had been the work of a small Lunar outfit calling themselves—of all things—Cadenza, but the fit is seamless, the installation invisible. The pianist supposes it doesn’t matter how much somatology is evident or even present in the studio she’s commissioned her new body from; what counts, after all, is the brain, and the brain is notoriously the one place somatology hasn’t yet touched, maybe never will be able to touch. She read the staff’s biographies as part of her initial research, brief as they had been, was still suitably impressed at the quantity of qualifications compacted into their really not all that spacious premises. She’s not quite as impressed with the two consultants the artisan is telling her about, the first a Lunar professor of neurology, the second an independent and highly sought-after chirologist, but only really because this is the first time she’s ever heard of them. Maybe this is something she can throw over to her manager, who is, as expected, furious, but not, and she’s glad for this, about what she has planned so much as the lateness with which he’s finally found out about it. She still needs to find a way to make amends, properly, but in the meantime she thinks, or hopes, that he might enjoy making sure everyone involved with her new somatic is as well-credentialed as they both say they are and should be. In any case, with the professor’s help the good people at Electric Shepherd have established a tentative nervemap, probably the trickiest part of what the pianist wants, a nervemap that they think promises the finest, smoothest, and maybe most importantly, most natural range of voluntary motion, especially with her requested alterations. For the appendicular subsystems, particularly for the brachial design but maybe the crural as well, they’re thinking of adapting something from the outbelt, an interlinked group of open-source templates released just a few months ago, collaborations by some Titanian and Callistan collectives, which surprises the pianist. She hadn’t known that there was sophisticated open-source somatology being done in the outbelt, or, indeed, anywhere at all. It does, however, raise a dicey ethical question. The templates are completely open-source, no strings attached, so there’s no legal dilemma whatsoever at incorporating them into a bespoke somatic, but Electric Shepherd would still feel a certain obligation to release their amendments under a similar license. Just the appendiculars, the artisan stresses, not the whole thing. (The copyrights for the rest of the design would remain with Electric Shepherd, but the copyrights for a bespoke anything are always awkward to hold in any case.) If this arrangement isn’t to the pianist’s liking, some of the team—but the pianist doesn’t care. So long as they wait until she has her new body and she gets to do her first run of concerts with it, the entire design is theirs to dispense with as they see fit. “Of course,” says the artisan, relieved. “That’d be perfectly fine with us,” she says, and moves on to what they’re considering for the skeleton.

Electric Shepherd throws a small party in October. It has nothing to do with the pianist; they’re celebrating a coup of a contract with the Akioya Ballet. Over on the Moon there’s supposed to be some grizzled legend of a choreographer they’ve lured out of retirement for a new and flagship production of István Csányi’s Transfigurations. But—and this is the critical but—the choreographer had insisted on a couple non-negotiable conditions as part of her unretirement, amongst them a demand for no less than five ballet-capable bodies she can actually transfigure onstage. When Csányi first composed his ballet, when he extracted from Ovid’s nearly twelve thousand hexameters just four episodes set to roughly two hours of music scored for symphony orchestra, somatology was little more than a radical biotechnology reserved for only the direst of medical emergencies. Now, decades later, the Akioya Ballet and its guest director are looking to stage Csányi’s Transfigurations with all the resources of their new century. Piloted bodies, of course, with no need for any unnecessary and potentially messy reintegrations, marionettes puppeteered by the transmigratory artistry of the Ballet’s offstage principals, courtesy of a small, intricate, and unobtrusive apparatus in the brainstem. It’ll be controversial, probably, but somatology and dance have intersected like this before; the artisan remembers her disappointment at the superficiality of the swans just two years ago watching (pirate) capture of a much-vaunted Swan Lake. The choreographer apparently has some of her own ideas already, already might be mulling over her own notions of just how a set of custom cythetics might embody the shift from sea-nymph to sacred spring, or drowned royalty to soaring kingfishers, and the artisan has already begun to prepare her most tactful apologies for being unable to quite accommodate the wilder sweeps of her client’s wonderful imagination. But she’s excited about it nonetheless, and not just because the contract looks set to secure the next few years of Electric Shepherd’s fiscal existence. Usually it’s the bigger, better-known studios that land these types of deals, but then the Akioya Ballet is itself a relatively modest enterprise, the parvenu amongst Lunar ballet companies, and so maybe this shared smallness had endeared them to Electric Shepherd. Whatever the reason, the artisan doesn’t care and probably neither do any of her team, half of them rapidly slipping past tipsy on the best champagne the artisan had been able to secure on short notice. Even the chirologist is there, enjoying himself, dancing slowly and surprisingly well with their materials scientist. They’d brought him in for just a few days to look over the pianist’s hands one last time, make sure the designs for her new set are about as final as they’re going to be. In a month, two at most, they’ll be ready to send out the complete schematic for fabrication; where exactly still needs to be decided, but they’ve made excellent progress and have managed to stay, for once, within budget. Virtually everything is in its last stages, and the pianist has even pledged to get them all seats at one of her first concerts reintegrated. The artisan doesn’t know if she’ll personally be able to take the pianist up on that, but it’s a nice gesture regardless, and she’s already feeling a little sorry to say goodbye to the project labelled PIAN001 in their intranet, but then she’s always a little sorry when even the most vexed commissions start to approach completion. Once, more drunk than this, she’d sat down with her oldest friend, a nurse at a hospital on the other side of the city, and sitting down on the steps in front of the Amelin, tried to work out why she was, as she had put it, “so fucking good at this job.” Because she was, as she had put it, “such a ridiculously empathic-empathetic-which-fucking-ever person,” she couldn’t help but fall into the enchantment of her clients’ exhilarated excitement, couldn’t help but share some of their own rhapsodic joy at the realization of perhaps their deepest dreams—because what, after all, could be more intimate, what could be, pardon the pun, more visceral than your own flesh and bone and bright coursing blood? It embarrasses her now, the memory, but it’s also, and this embarrasses her as well, the source of a small and secret pride, because her oldest friend had been considerably less drunk and instead of deploying the razored tongue the artisan had run into on more than one occasion, she had simply snorted, said, “Sounds about right,” and asked the artisan how bad a hangover they were expecting in the morning.


The pianist gives her last set of performances for a long time, a December spent flitting through the Moon's four capitals. She has nothing listed on her public schedule for the coming year, no explanation anywhere else. The manager does a good job finding different ways to give No comment, and prays that nothing goes wrong in the months to follow. If all goes well, his client will have her new somatic by February of the coming year, will have reacquired a complete range of motor control by that year’s close. Her present body the clinic will carve up into an as yet unspecified quantity of organs and distribute most likely the same number of ways, which for the pianist is a weird and not very pleasant thing to think about, so she doesn’t, mostly. Instead she concentrates, as she always has, on what’s immediately before her, on this last Lunar month of performing with the form God, or her parents, or their genes—take your pick—gave her. The album came out a couple weeks ago, with a serenely measured Barcarolle betraying none of its tortured gestation. Most of her reviewers had called it a fine effort but few had gone beyond that, which had been a little disheartening to read, but the same reviewers had reached for all kinds of superlatives to describe her Geistervariationen, which she was happier with than expected, considering she’s never felt like she’s had all that much of an affinity for Schumann. But she doesn’t let herself dwell too much on the album, nor does she play anything from it, as is her habit. The first half of the month is all concerts, Bartók’s first concerto, which she privately thinks of as his worst, but it’s still Bartók, and it’s with the Fourth Lunar Philharmonic, whose chief conductor is an old, deft hand, one of the very few people the pianist has ever seen pull off the trick of being feared and loved, at least by their orchestras; to their soloists they are perhaps more of the latter than the former. So that goes well, and although she doesn’t always stick around for the whole concert she enjoys what she hears out of what she judges to have been the best Lunar orchestra for a while now, their lithely responsive Haydn especially impressive.

The rest of the month is taken up with recitals. It’s a simple enough set of programs, maybe even conservative: mostly Schubert, Beethoven, some Chopin. She ventures as far afield as two Arief Préludes in a couple encores, but then Arief is probably to contemporary composers as Verklärte Nacht is to the Second Viennese School and her early Préludes most of all, more Trojan pony than horse. It’s probably just her imagination, but these last audiences seem more disciplined, attentive, any bronchial disturbances kept to a rare minimum. When, in Tranquility, she goes to greet her very last of the month, of the year, they even wait for her at the end, wait just for a few seconds, not really long enough to let the last note of Chopin’s Berceuse fade away into its proper silence, but she appreciates the gesture nonetheless. They clap and cheer and some even whistle, all of them loud enough, long enough, to force out a second curtain call, so she comes out, takes her bow, and sits down at the piano for the encore, just a little bit embarrassed, as always. She only prepares one for each recital (and she thinks even this verges on the egotistical), so she reaches for the piece she spent a good portion of the last two days making sure she still has locked well within her dexterous memory, the first of Liszt’s eventual three transcriptions of Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube.” She doesn’t get why nobody else plays these corners of Liszt’s admittedly expansive oeuvre, why nobody else seems to delight as she does in all the ways the Hungarian virtuoso found for his instrument to essentially accompany itself, the unrepeated genius of his own particular Lieder ohne Worte. She plays it slowly, gradually, stretches it out to four full minutes, but nobody coughs, nobody seems even to fidget, everyone just sits and listens in enraptured silence, and when she’s done they clap and cheer for her even more furiously, and she blushes even more brightly, and is eventually dragged out again for one more encore (but only one, she decides, no matter how hard they might clap afterwards.) Okay, she thinks, at this point operating on impulse, let’s do another transcription. Let’s do Bach, because there are about a dozen Bach transcriptions she knows by heart and a hundred more she could call up, but when she sits down and readies her fingers over her keyboard she’s not thinking about a transcription at all. An Aria instead, not the famously mutable theme of the Goldbergs but the eponymous Aria of the Aria variata alla maniera italiana, which has always seemed to her a more concise, more terse, more starkly beautiful passage of music than its famous cousin. It used to be her thing, her signature piece, and then some younger pianists started playing it, recording it even, which at the time she took maybe a little more personally than she should have. It’s the dream she has, the dream about which she’s told nobody but her partner. One day, she thinks or hopes, one day when she’s old and grey and still a good enough pianist to feature on her album art even when not all that photogenic anymore, she’s going to make one, maybe two if she can, but at the very least one perfect recording, one hour of the most perfect sequence of struck strings the felted hammers of a grand piano can be made to realize. Something they’ll talk about long after she’s gone, something people will see fit to mention amidst such exalted company as Haskil’s Mozart or Raihan’s Dvořák. She’s not after immortality, although she admits that would be nice, but something probably much more ambitious: apotheosis. (“You want to make a prelapsarian recording,” her partner had remarked, and the pianist, once she’d established what that meant, hadn’t disagreed.) And she thinks she has the best shot at it with the Aria variata. Let Hirano and van Zandt (and fine, Gould too) keep their Goldbergs, she can find her own way to the stars with BWV989. But only when she’s older and greyer and her fingers a little wiser, when she feels ready to set down in sonic stone her own Aria and its ten (eleven if you count the Aria da capo) Variations and whatever other Bach—she hasn’t thought that far ahead yet. For now she’s happy with just the Aria for this evidently adoring audience, with just shaping out the last succession of notes she might ever get to sound in a concert hall with this body, these hands.

“I feel,” the pianist’s partner says, “that I should be asking you the question.”

“I’m not,” says the pianist, who is mostly lying down in their private compartment of the train they’re taking together, her head in her partner’s lap. She pauses a moment, reconsiders. “Maybe a little,” she says.

“Good,” says her partner. “Well, maybe not good; I just mean, I’d be worried if you weren’t just a little bit nervous about it.”

“I think,” says the pianist, “I’m more nervous than I am scared. But I’m not not-scared, if you know what I’m trying—”

“I know,” says her partner. The pianist’s partner is an ecologist, a newly minted PhD still settling into her little niche somewhere in the grand sprawling monstrosity that is the Martian terraforming effort. There is a funny story about how they met about three years ago, or rather there is a story that the pianist’s partner finds funny and the pianist has been wishing for about three years for her partner to stop finding so funny. They are something of an unusual pairing; although the ecologist is the kind of person to make use of words like prelapsarian she has, or had, very little ear for music. Now she still cannot quite tell you why she prefers one conductor of Mahler over another, but the preference is there, which the pianist considers progress. For her part, the pianist still isn’t exactly sure what a biome is, nor if the domes count or if they’re just big habitats, but then this is something her partner has never been in a rush to clarify; she likes keeping their Estrid apartment a sanctuary from the cascade of papers she has to wade through at the office.

“I’m a little scared,” says the pianist’s partner. The ride isn’t very long; even getting from one Martian antipode to its other this way would have only been a matter of hours. But they’ve chosen this brief luxury instead of something even faster like a suborbital because it’s probably the last chance they’ll get to talk properly and privately before the pianist wakes up in her new somatic, and all its attendant complications.

The pianist opens her mouth, about to say something, and then she stretches a hand up instead, traces the line of her partner’s cheekbone. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “Even if …”

“I know,” says her partner, catching the pianist’s hand when it tumbles down, holds it with both of her own. “It better be,” she says.

The physiotherapy is long and difficult, as it always is. The pianist endures, perseveres, as she usually does. She doesn’t worry about her plans, about her talent, just gets on with the daily regimen of her slow reacclimation. Every now and then, she inloads pianists, the pianism that has meant the most to her, a rollcall of names and their recordings, some famous and some forgotten. But she doesn’t listen to these often, prefers symphonies, orchestral music and opera, sometimes chamber music, occasionally lieder. This isn’t a response to anything, it’s just how she usually attends to the tradition that has given so much to her life and which she has, in however miniscule a sense, tried to repay. Her favourite band when she was seventeen release their first album in over a decade; she inloads that as well and is to her relief not disappointed, but mostly she sticks to everything that would get tagged classical if she bothered to tag, makes a few discoveries for herself along the way, performers and composers. There are even some in the latter category who she makes a list of, hesitantly, wondering if they might be interested in writing something for her and her new capabilities someday, but she tries not to think too much about this, tries to avoid anything that requires going too far into the future. Most of a year goes by like this before she finds herself in front of a keyboard, alone, with just her partner outside their apartment. One of the reasons the pianist is willing to put up with her partner’s continual repetition of the story of their first meeting is because the pianist trusts her to simply get on with the novel she was reading instead of waiting with her ear pressed right up against the door. The pianist takes a breath, lays her hands on her Aurengarde, plucks a note, plucks another. She’s started on Ravel, she realizes, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and then her hands dissolve into movement, instinct, her fingers skipping, skittering, shimmering through the keys as they always have, as she was afraid they would not, skimmering through the Pavane except she’s just a little too swift, too strong, overdoing it like her second teacher always criticized her for. “You know,” he’s saying in her ear, “someone played it too slow and Ravel said the princess was dead not the pavane, but with you I think you want the pleasure of murdering it yourself.” Oh God, she thinks, and she slows down just a touch and then she remembers she always thought he was a charlatan and speeds up instead, accelerates, goes further, tears through her keyboard at the most giddy unbridled reckless mockery of a tempo she can get away with and when she’s done butchering Ravel’s poor Pavane she laughs and laughs and wraps her arms around herself and goes on laughing until she cries.

“Franz Schubert,” says the pianist, “Fantasie f-moll für Klavier zu vier Händen.” She spreads her arms, all her hands. In her audience, a few people are bent over laughing, silently as they can, and she thinks she might recognize one or two of them. The pianist smiles at them, or really more accurately for them, for their helpless mirth, and she brings her hands together. “Fantasy in F minor for piano four-hands,” says the pianist. “F-xiaodiao huanxiang qu, si shou lian dan.” And then she turns, sits down, spreads her four hands and twenty fingers over the ninety-seven keys of her Aurengarde. Some of them are still laughing when she is about to begin; these may be the only possible circumstances in which she doesn’t mind.

E. A. Xiong, born in Changsha, China, now lives and writes on the land of the Darug people, in territory otherwise known as Sydney, Australia. She may be reached online @calvinoist.
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13 May 2024

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