Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Best Science Fiction Song of All Time • by Pete Wood


The science fiction rock song that probably everybody knows is the God-awful In the Year 2525, a 1969 one hit wonder by Zager and Evans. Inexplicably, the song still gets plenty of airplay. Its lyrics are nonsensical with the kind of science fiction world-building that one might expect from an elementary school student.

The Rolling Stones took a stab at science fiction with 2000 Lightyears from Home, but it’s hardly memorable. Rocket Man is an ear worm, but barely science fiction. Among those science fiction songs that work are David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Blondie’s Rapture, and the Eurythmics’ Thought Crime.

Rock bands have had more success with the science fiction rock opera.  Rush’s take on Ayn Rand in 2112 works for the most part. I like the music and it’s pretty true to Anthem. Well, except for  finding the guitar part. Mr. Roboto, Styx’s dystopian take on censorship, has some good songs, but overall kinda falls flat. I know, I know, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Wish You Were Here aren’t science fiction. But they very easily could be.

The greatest science fiction album may have been Lifehouse, Pete Townsend’s failed early seventies rock opera. He couldn’t quite pull it off, but he cobbled together the surviving songs my favorite Who album, Who’s Next?

For the most part science fiction songs in rock have been simplistic.  With the great speculative works out there, rock has surprisingly adapted few. There have been some great stabs with classic literature. Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush.  The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Metallica.  Or the perfect merger of rock and literature—White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane.

The music we most associate with science fiction tends to be instrumentals. The soundtracks to 2001, Close Encounters, and Star Wars are pop culture staples. If you want to know why science fiction themes don’t have words, check out the lyrics to Alexander Courage’s theme to the television show,  Star Trek. For some reason Gene Rodenberry felt compelled to write lines like “My love Is wand'ring in star-flight I know he'll find in star-clustered reaches.  Love, strange love a star woman teaches.” Cue the sound of a needle scraping across a vinyl record. Trust me, you don’t want to hear the rest. The only thing that could make these lyrics worse would be William Shatner singing them. Check out his version of Mr. Tambourine Man on YouTube if you have any doubts.

Ah, but back to the greatest science fiction song.

Queen did the music for the campy update of Flash Gordon in 1980. The songs are catchy, but kinda shallow. I heard Sam Jones, who played Flash and little else, speak three years ago. You could feel the energy get sucked out of the room when he admitted that he had never met Queen. They recorded the songs after filming was finished. Nobody had many questions after that.

Brian May, the lead guitarist for Queen, wrote Flash’s Theme, my favorite song from the movie. But it’s another May song that is the greatest science fiction rock song of all time: 39.

39. In a little under four minutes, that song packs in more story, more character arc, and more real science than most short stories.

Brian May knows a thing or two about physics. He was pursuing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at London’s Imperial College in the early seventies when he abandoned his graduate degree to tour full time.  He finally earned his PhD in 2008 with his thesis on A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. Try saying that three times fast.

39 is the fifth track on their fourth studio album A Night at the Opera. The song was also the B-side to the single, You’re My Best Friend.

It’s a heart-breakingly poignant song about an interstellar crew of naive volunteers who journey into deep space to find a habitable planet. They are gone for a year by their count, but when they return home the poor selfless crew discover the effects of time dilation. Decades have passed on Earth.

With a masterful economy, May tells a story of overpopulation, love, interstellar travel, time dilation, and hubris, in 249 words. 249 words!  

The song’s refrain is haunting. It doesn’t make sense at first until it hits you and then it’s a real kick in the teeth.

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew

Freddie Mercury comes to mind when most people think of Queen, and with good reason. His larger-than-life voice and bombastic stage presence with hard-driving instrumentals made a Queen concert. That clip of him leading a singalong at Live Aid in a packed Wembley Stadium in 1985 before launching into Radio Gaga still gets me on my feet. Is it any wonder Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta adopted Lady Gaga as her stage name?

After a set from the world’s best front man (except maybe for Roger Daltrey or Bruce Springsteen), the lights would go down and May would sit on a stool and give the audience a dramatic change of pace. He’d strum 39 on an acoustic guitar and sing while Mercury had a chance to catch his breath. Quite the showstopper.

The band named two of their albums—A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races—after Marx Brothers movies. Groucho Marx, who died in 1977, invited the band to his estate five months before his death. They performed 39 a capella for the only surviving Marx Brother.

Damn, I’d love to have a time machine just to witness that.



Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them


Leterren said...

There's an abundance of great science fiction in the progressive metal sphere, though usually they are full concept albums rather than standalone tracks. Early on in the genre's history, there's the foundational Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche. More recently, Visions by Haken and Parallax II: Future Sequence by Between the Buried and Me were voted as two the top albums of the decade by the progmetal subreddit (the latter scoring the #1 slot). I could list off a dozen more names easily, but the art is not dead even if the broader rock genre is no longer the popular thing.

Pete Wood said...

Great comment. Thanks for the suggestions. I am not as familiar with that genre of music.

Leterren said...

I've heard it argued that 2112 is actually the earliest work that could be considered progressive metal (especially the heaviness of the temples of syrinx movement) well before bands like Queensryche and Dream Theater codified the genre in the late 80s/early 90s.

I love progressive metal as it allows for a huge variety of expressions and sounds while maintaining some of the nerdiness of old school prog rock. I'd recommend starting with Dream Theater's Images and Words, as it's widely considered the most influential and genre-defining album.

jamsco said...

I recommend the time travel concept album Time from ELO.

Pete Wood said...

Been listening to Time on youtube. Good stuff. How did I not know of that already?