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Friday, April 9, 2021

Twelve Notes in Search of a Theme


Spring returns to the North Country, traveling in the company of soft rains and the occasional thundershower. The sudden transformation seems nearly miraculous. In a week the grass has gone from brown and apparently dead to lush, green, and growing. The crocuses have already finished their warm-up act and the puschkinias are wrapping up their run. The tulips are full of the promise of blossoms, the bloodroot is all set to go for its big opening number, and a few of the more eager daffodils have already popped into full bloom. One lonely sandhill crane struts around the cow pasture, wondering why all the rest are late. The air is full of the songs of birds, just returned from their winter homes down south.

Yes, I’m sure the geese think the racket with which they salute the dawn is the most beautiful singing in all the world, too.


If you’ve written to me in the past two weeks or so, my apologies for the tardiness of my reply. Things here have gone just a bit wobbly on the rails again. We don’t know yet whether this is some new symptom or just another pharmaceutical misadventure, but suffice to say we’re back on the diagnostic roller-coaster. Rather than publish speculation and supposition, we’ll share the news when we have actual news to share.

When one is living with cancer, one tends to either clam up or overshare. Other people overshare much better than I do. I think I’ll leave that field to them.


ASK DR. CYBERPUNK is giving it a miss this week. I had begun to write the whole sordid story of how my original c-word novel began as something—well, something pretty darn cyberpunky—but mutated into a military boarding school bildungsroman. I will get back to that topic, but not this week.

The short version is that a) it was my fault, and b) it’s a cautionary tale for aspiring writers. Sometimes, even when you have a four-book deal in hand and both your editor and your agent agree that you need to make “just a few small changes” to make the finished novel a more commercial property, the right thing to do is still to tell them both to get stuffed and walk away from the deal.


If you have noticed, I have been taking a Facebook holiday for the past week or so. This was not intentional. A bit over a week ago I found myself locked out of my Facebook account, not because I had committed Thoughtcrime (as I had at first thought), but because of a Javascript bug in the Facebook login routine. Eventually I figured out how to solve the problem and get back into Facebook—and I’ll be happy to share my workaround with anyone who’s interested—but by the time I did get back into Facebook again I’d gone cold turkey long enough that the urgent need to check Facebook had abated, so I decided to treat this as an experiment. Is there a significant observable correlation between my level of Facebook activity and RLP book sales? A week’s worth of data suggests that no, there is not.

If you have not noticed that I have been off Facebook, see the previous paragraph.

As an aside: interesting that when I found myself locked out of Facebook, my first assumption was that I had violated some unwritten and capriciously enforced social media speech policy. If I ever teach a class in science fiction, writing, futurism, or anything like that, remind me to put 1984 on the required reading list.


While we’re on the subject of writing science fiction and predicting the future and such, quite a few people have asked how I do it. The answer is surprisingly simple. Beyond obvious cause and effect—e.g., “If you don’t show up for work consistently, I predict that you will lose your job”—it is impossible to predict the future accurately on a micro scale, and anyone who claims to be able to do so is either a liar, a charlatan, or an astrologer. Fortunately, you, being a paid professional liar—that is, a science fiction writer—can join their company without any qualms at all, so go ahead: pants it. Make up stuff on the fly just because it sounds cool. If it turns out later that you guessed right: great! Bask in the glory!

If you feel compelled to try to predict the future on a macro scale and to do it somewhat accurately, though, understand that before you can do so, you must first know the answer to this ancient riddle:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


For the past few weeks, until things went off the rails about two weeks ago, we had been doing ad hoc “theme weeks” here on, with most of the posts in any given week having something to do with some specific topic. Question for the readers: are theme weeks worth continuing, or would you rather see a broader spectrum of topics every week?

I ask because Pete Wood has proposed doing Ray Bradbury Week. I will cheerfully publish Pete’s column on the subject but don’t know that I myself have anything left to say about Bradbury. I wrote a lot of Bad Imitation Bradbury stories when I was in junior high and high school. My never-finished thesis was to be a hatchet-job on Bradbury, written from that arrogant P.O.V. that is only accessible to those in their mid-20s who believe they are really hot [stuff]. A few years later I had the good fortune to meet Bradbury, and the experience absolutely floored me, because he recognized my name and started talking to me about a story of mine that had just been published in Amazing. But...

Ray Bradbury Week? Is this a theme that interests you?


I am slightly disappointed that Music in Science Fiction / Science Fiction in Music Week fizzled out as quickly as it did, as I have many more questions I would like to see explored. For example, in the spacefaring planet-hopping science fictional future, where’s the liturgical music? If you go traveling around the Pacific Ocean today it seems impossible to find any place, no matter how remote, where you are not following in the footsteps of some 18th or 19th century Christian missionary who went there before you, schlepping along his Bible, his hymnal, his long-suffering assistant, and a portable pump organ. Are we to believe that in the future there will not be missionaries out there in the stars, spreading the good news of the gospel and teaching the natives to sing “Amazing Grace” in their native language?

Or what about all these oppressive theocracies that science fiction writers seem to like to imagine? Don’t they have any music besides pounding kettle drums and choirs of the damned to go with their hideous and arcane rituals?


Okay, maybe they’ll have pipe organs. Pipe organs have been with us for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had hydraulically powered pipe organs. The ancient Romans had pipe organs in their coliseums, and some yutz was at the console playing the Roman equivalent of “Charge!” and “We are the Champions” as the score went Lions 6, Christians 0. We don’t know exactly what they played, as no known written record of their music survives, but archaelogists have unearthed enough fragments of their instruments that we know how they would have sounded. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras worked out the details of “pure” diatonic tuning sometime before 500 BCE, the Romans adopted it for their pipe organs, and we’ve been living with it ever since—although to modern ears* true Pythagorean intonation sounds a little off, as we are more used to tempered intonation, which only came into fashion about 300 years ago.

[*Excluding clarinet and saxophone players, of course, who insist that they are correct and everyone else is slightly out-of-tune.]


My point is, music is inextricably linked to acoustic physics, and therefore to mathematics, so where is the science fiction that even thinks about the sci-fi implications? Music is intrinsic to what we are as human beings: we love to sing, we love to dance; yes, even your brother-in-law with two left feet who can’t carry a tune in a bucket and whose voice sounds like geese farts on a muggy day. We take our music with us wherever we go; we make music with whatever we have at hand, even if it's only pounding out a rhythm on a teak log while someone else blows a solo on the conch shell. We love music, and the how, why, and what of the music we make is constantly evolving.

So why is music in science fiction so very much like science fictional “magic gravity?” (You know, the principle that in the future, no matter where you go or what sort of spaceship you might be on, you will still be able to move about just exactly as if you were walking around a soundstage on the Paramount lot.) I mean, consider what just a small increase in the amount of helium in the atmosphere does to the sound of the human voice. Now imagine what effect that would have on a singer, or someone trying to play a clarinet.

I know, I know: they’d still insist that they were the only ones properly in tune.

As far as the future of music is concerned, only one thing is certain: that the future of music is a recipriversexclusion. The moment someone announces that they know the future of music—or worse, that they are the future of music—that becomes the one future that absolutely cannot possibly happen.


Tomas G. asks:

Hi Mr. Bethke, I would absolutely love to purchase several issues of Stupefying Stories, but the only thing holding me back is that they are only available on Kindle, which is inconvenient as an overseas owner of a Kobo E-Reader... Is there any way I could buy an issue in a DRM-protected EPUB format? Is there a specific reason that you choose to publish in this way?

We’ve gone back and forth several times on this one. When we first launched we went wide, with distribution on every possible e-book reader we could support. That quickly proved to be more cumbersome than advantageous, as it entailed a lot of extra work for very little increase in sales. As we discovered at the time, a great month’s sales on Nook or iTunes was a slow day’s sales on Kindle.

Since then the tools have improved, so that the production overhead is no longer a problem, but Amazon has upped their game and offered us a lot of incentives to put titles exclusively on Kindle, most notably the Kindle Unlimited program. We keep experimenting with it, but so far the results have been the same. The Kindle Unlimited program sells novels. When we pull novels off KU—as we have to do if we want to distribute to non-Kindle users—sales drop dramatically. 

The interesting part is that KU sells novels but appears to inhibit sales of short story collections. With novels, KU subscribers seem to read enough to decide to buy the entire book, but with short stories, they seem to read just the one or two stories that catch their interest and ignore the rest of the book.

Right now we’re just trying to solve our production problems and get issues #24 and #25 out the door. Once we do that, we’ll revisit the issue and decide whether we want to keep Stupefying Stories as a Kindle-only title or give it wider distribution. 


Dark and Gritty Week also got short shrift. I was working with my wife on an article about the female perspective on darkness in storytelling when we first realized that something was, if not wrong, at least not right, and we may yet complete that article. But for now, I want to close out the topic with one bit of the exchange, in which my wife was making the point that it’s very tightly tied in with the whole Good Guy/Bad Boy dichotomy and the evolutionary advantages of seeking a mate from further away in the gene pool. “Yes,” she said, “we want to marry the Good Guy.

“But only after we’ve had a wild fling with the Bad Boy.”

In response to my arched eyebrow, she added, “Remember our first date? How my Dad was sitting there at the kitchen table, in full uniform, cleaning his service revolver, and grilling you on where we were going, what we were going to do, and when you were going to bring me back?

“Did you think he did that for boys he approved of my dating? You were everything he’d warned me against bringing home: a long-haired liberal college-boy intellectual.

“That made you like catnip. How could I resist?”


Finally, item #12—and I’ll confess, I had to stretch it a bit to make it to twelve, but I did so for a reason. It’s a self-conscious nod to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which yes, I did study, and even used to some extent, although I was never any good at it. I always found it too sterile, mechanistic, and pretentiously academic and intellectual. These days I could probably write a computer program to auto-generate twelve-tone compositions…

Although come to think of it, I already did something like that, about 40 years ago. I wrote a piece for computer-controlled sequencer tracks and marimba, and I remember the percussionist complaining afterward that I’d given all the tricky and technically challenging parts to the computer.

Of course I did. That’s what computers are good at: things that require great technical precision but no soul. What he was there for was to provide the human element; the warmth and slight randomness. But he didn’t see it that way.

Maybe there’s a story in that… 

—Bruce Bethke


Unknown said...

I once threatened to write a program to generate all 49-odd-million tone rows and their variants, copyright the whole bunch, and refuse to let anyone use them. Ever. ��

~brb said...

No, no, no, that's not how you do it. You wait until someone uses the riff in a big commercial hit and then sue them for infringement! Get the right judge and you can be raking in the cash for decades to come.