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[Editor's Note: This special issue of music and SFF was made possible thanks to the generosity of Maxwell Neely-Cohen, who has also kindly agreed to write this Foreword to the issue.]


Maxwell Neely-Cohen

The first time I ever tried to write fiction it was a future story, not about outer space or a fantastic kingdom or resistance against a dystopian government, but a rave. I was nineteen, and a friend had given me a copy of Jeff Noon’s networked short fiction collection, Pixel Juice. It had not previously occurred to me that science fiction could be applied to sound systems, dances, and music scenes—that fictional subgenres could be invented on the page, driven by instruments that did not yet exist. Noon had done all of these and more, using the rich musical output of his native Manchester as an inspirational launchpad. I realized that when we write speculative fiction, we can not only imagine ships, wars, and planets, but sounds, performances, and parties.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” goes the oft-repeated maxim (of unknown authorship), carrying the implication that we should not even bother to try. Nonsense, I say. Never mind that, as music writer Robert Christgau pointed out, “dancing usually is about architecture.” When we dance, we channel sound to define space. Whether in ballet studios or techno clubs, we dance about architecture every day. We should try to write about music, dance about architecture, and make opera about economics too. 

Besides, those making music and sound are in a constant state of obsession with the speculative, the weird, the unknown, the futuristic, and the poetic. Music has a tradition of producing science fiction and speculative imagery that rivals literature or film, yet we too often forget to include it as seminal examples of imagining worlds. David Bowie, Sun Ra, Björk, and Daft Punk are as integral and deserving members of the canon of speculative fiction as Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

Even science fiction film is arguably dominated most not by its look, but by its sounds. The hums and screams of ships. The wails of lasers. The chirps of intelligent machines. Strings and synthesizers showing us how to soar across the void. The scores of Vangelis or John Williams instantly become the authoritative music of the speculative or the fantastic. It’s a magic trick, so powerful that when I hear a classical composer like Richard Strauss I immediately think of him as science fiction because of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hear that opening timpani and I am free, rotating, in space. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a piece of organ music from 1704, absolutely feels like the anthem for a future dystopian bloodsport after hearing it open Rollerball.

My father was ten years old when Forbidden Planet was released in movie theaters in 1956. “It didn’t sound like anything I had ever seen,” he told me. Soundtracked by married couple Bebe and Louis Barron, the score was the first entirely electronic film score, using custom-built electronic circuit ring modulators to create the never-heard sounds, sending them through effect changes and tape loops until they became spaceship rumbles, robotic attacks, and dramatic symphonic interludes. Those dreamers who designed and built new instruments—Bob Moog, Leon Theremin, Delia Derbyshire, Antonio Stradivari—all were engaged in a form of speculative art, inventing the ability to dream of the sound of the future.

Maybe all of us who have ever searched for new noise are in fact engaged in a form of science fiction or fantasy. We are trying to create or live in another world, to unleash and explore the unknown in an attempt to reflect the present. 

Thus, this special themed issue of Strange Horizons is dedicated to the subject of music.

Mary Fan writes a brilliant essay on the sounds of science fiction, delving into constructed languages, TV themes, and how melody can exist even on a silent page.

For fiction, we have stories saturated with sonic power. In “A Whistle on the Drum,” Mir Plemmons takes us into the Pacific Northwest's powwow dance scene and shows just how powerful the ancients can be. In “Folk Hero Motifs in Tales Told by the Dead,” KT Bryski brings a character haunted by melodies, struggling to remember music in a world where it has gone. R.B. Lemberg’s “A City on Its Tentacles” illustrates a beautiful and fantastical world infused with story and song. 

In reviews, Sessily Watt looks at Janelle Monáe's afrofuturist narrative short story collection companion to her musical work, The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer. Then Dan Hartland investigates P.J. Harvey’s latest collection of verse and lyric. 

Rhythm and song flow from the issue’s poets. Sydney Sackett’s “After a line From Bob Dylan’s ‘Changing of the Guards’” is a revolutionary trip to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, a version we have never seen. Tristan Beiter’s “The Birds Singing In The Rocks” overflows with inventive lyricism. Maria Kornacki’s “Yo, This Ocean Slaps Hard” will echo in my head for months.

We hope you enjoy it.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen is a writer, musician, and dancer based in New York City. He is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom and Publisher of the html review, a new journal of interactive experimental poetry and literature. His nonfiction has been featured in places like The New Republic, Ssense, and BOMB Magazine. You can find him on twitter at @nhyphenc.
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28 Nov 2022

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