Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

The first chapter of Justina Robson’s Natural History is structured around the Don McLean song, “American Pie”. The lyrics help to structure fraught events, both in our world and in that of the dying Isol. The book (about which more discussion  next week) begins, in effect, with music, with a theme song. It’s not a whole soundtrack for the book, but it’s why I noticed a coincidence or a trend – I don’t have enough data to know which.

Our first book of this year’s TC reading project didn’t have one theme song. It had an entire discography, listed out on the final pages of the paperback and a page of the accompanying website. Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love is about a rock band, so it’s not surprising that it might come with music. Plenty of books about bands don’t, however. This one recommends hours of previously-existing albums, plumbed for their vibe, their synergies, their influence on the book’s musical interactions. Its concerts are major plot points.

The second book didn’t have a discography listed out as an appendix, but it didn’t need one. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is suffused with soundtrack, carefully orchestrated by its main character to match the needs of his life. Lou uses symphonic music to overlay sequences in his life with imposed structure, a device which makes it easier for him to cope with various scenarios, from the gym to the drive home. It need not even be recorded: he has a wealth of classical music stored in his memory for summoning up when he needs it as counterbalance. A mention – name, composer – may be enough to summon up the tunes for some readers as well. In only one instance does Lou recommend to us specific versions of the music he thinks through: in all other cases, we can pick our own symphonies, our own soloists.

I’ve read a couple of other books in the past year or so which came with the songs or albums listed to which the author wrote the book. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty books do. Linnea Sinclair’s last novel, Rebels and Lovers, does. Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland has an entire purchasable album which was compiled around it. So does her currently Clarke Award-nominated Zoo City.

The only book soundtracks I’m particularly aware of from previous decades are filk. Mercedes Lackey has written and produced a slew of albums to accompany her Valedemar novels. Anne McCaffrey approved an official album in part comprising tunes to lyrics she’d provided in her Pern novels. Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue came with poignant alternative spacefaring lyrics to known tunes, used as chapter intros.

The CD singles charts may be in commercial freefall, as far as any given song’s success is concerned, but I am certain that, more broadly, the singles market has never been more healthy. Download a song as ringtone. Download a single at a click. In the ‘80s it became feasible to make mix tapes, with the advent of the cassette tape. Now, a book’s soundtrack need not even be prepackaged if the tunes are mainstream enough: they can be individually downloaded and reassembled into the unified album that a playlist had the potential to be on one’s own music playing device.

As evidence goes, this is scanty. These are the works of science fiction and fantasy I can name off of the top of my head which come with soundtracks.

So – the three books so far for the best science fiction novels written by women in the last decade. Will more of this year’s TC reading project feature theme songs or downloadable soundtracks?

Are female authors more likely to include that bit of extra real-world tie-in world-building than male ones are, or is this an accident of what I’ve been reading that I’ve only noticed soundtracks in books which happen to be written by women?

Regardless of gender, is this a trend or a coincidental cluster?

14 thoughts on “Playlists, Soundtracks, and Science Fiction

  1. I’d suggest ‘coincidental cluster’, Shana (although if you plan to read Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn you’ll find more evidence for it). I’m sure I’ve read quite a few books by male writers that similarly either reference music within the text or include a “the author wrote this book to the sound of the following:” in or around the acknowledgements section.

    Of course, now I’ve said this I’m blanking on loads of possible examples but I know Ian McDonald has done this, and so has Michael Cobley in the past. With McDonald it seems to be particularly relevant because at least some of his choices seem to be cultural keys to help write about his locations.

  2. I’m not sure it’s a trend, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting phenomenon. Off the top of my head, the male example that comes to mind is Ian McDonald, who I think has provided soundtracks for his last three novels. And another datapoint would be Tricia Sullivan’s Sound Mind, which explores music as a mode of perception. (And of course Justina Robson has written an entire quintet in which one of the characters is a rockstar elf.) This is Paul Raven’s cue to jump in with a comment about the general congruencies between sf and music!

  3. Re-reading, I didn’t make clear: I was wondering if it was a trend to include playlists regardless of author’s gender. That is not at all clear from my last line! (For ease of discussion, I’ll rewrite that last line.) Technologically, at least, it’s never been easier.

    Neil: It had been too long since I read Lightborn. Just flipping through, it’s clear from the chapter headings!

    As for Ian McDonald – the only one I have handy is The Dervish House, and that does not obviously have a playlist. I can remember one named pop star in the book, but none of her songs was mentioned by name as far as I recall, and I was assuming she was a future fiction anyway. Is the music material somewhere else, or just in other of his books?

  4. Hmm, there’s definitely a playlist in the back of Brasyl (Adam mentions it in his review), and I’d have sworn I’d seen one somewhere for The Dervish House. But maybe I made it up.

  5. Charles de Lint sometimes mentions songs in his introductions. And Lackey includes quite a lot of references to non-filk music in her racecar elf books – she’s the one who introduced me to They Might Be Giants, to name but one :)

    I like these sorts of soundtracks and playlists. If the music doesn’t appeal, I can just skip it, but if it works it adds a whole other layer to the book. Although of course if one hates the music enough that can potentially taint the writing…

  6. Carrie Vaughn provides soundtracks to her Kitty Norville novels.

    I want to say I remember Emma Bull providing soundtracks too.

  7. I’m a little confused about what exactly you’re looking for, what is the trend vs. what is evidence of the trend. Mentioning a real band or specific songs in the text? A deeper integration of real songs into the text? The author supplying a playlist, outside of the text, that the book was written to? The author assisting with or assenting to the creation of a soundtrack album of original songs based on the text? Are these separate trends, or indicators of some larger trend–and if the latter, what is the larger trend, and are these its only indicators?

    In terms of playlists outside the text, in the afterword to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) he writes that he’s never seen the point in listing the music a book was written to (and then goes on to mention a few bands). So acknowledging playlists was something that was occurring with at least some frequency by then. That said, I can certainly believe that it is more common now, for reasons of culture, technology, and economy. And do you count when authors list a playlist not in the book, but on their blog?

    Authors who have created and/or assisted in the creation of soundtracks–that is, songs about–their books: I think back here to Tolkien’s collaboration with Donald Swann, and also Michael Moorcock’s collaboration with groups like Hawkwind. In the 1990s, there was a soundtrack album by the band Boiled in Lead for Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm’s collaborative novel The Gypsy; the novel included bits of original song lyrics. This decade, there have been S.J. Tucker’s albums based on Cat Valente’s novels; Catherine Asaro worked closely with the band Point Valid on an album to accompany her book Diamond Star; Jeff VanderMeer collaborated with The Church on a soundtrack for his novel Shriek and with Murder By Death for Finch, which in its pages features the appearance of a band that sounds a lot like Murder By Death.

    I should note that with this list of women’s SF, we’re looking at books that were selected by popular vote as being the best. And I think, all other things being equal, that it is going to be the most popular books that will inspire the most “associative creations” like music. So you may get more “hits” than normal with this list. And in terms of women vs. men, you’d want to compare the hits you get in this top 10 list of books by women with a similar top 10 list of books by men.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer also compiles playlists in addition to commissioning soundtracks but you will have to hunt around online to find them: Then there was the slipcased limited edition of ‘Alligator Alley’ by Mink Mole & Dr Adder (Tim Ferret & K.W. Jeter) that came with a soundtrack cassette back in the eighties:,++K.+W+(writing+as+ Michael Moorcock wrote the novelisation of ‘The Great Rock’n’ Roll Swindle’ and gave each chapter a song title. However, he took great liberties with the plot and it features many of his recurring characters. It ended up being much closer to his own mythos than than it was to the original film: Mick Farren is another of the Notting Hill anarchists who interweaves his SF books with music, but of course he’d made several albums before becoming a novelist. And Philip K. Dick called one of his shorter novels ‘Cantata 140’; if that is not a suggestion for a soundtrack then I don’t know what is.

    I think that the concept has been around as long as recorded music has been available but these days something that might have been assembled purely for the author’s own pleasure has a good chance of ending up online (and then spreads to the printed page) and that is what is giving it the appearance of a trend.

  9. Alan Dean Foster comes to mind with his Spellsinger books, about a chap who gets transported to a fantasy land where he finds that singing song lyrics makes for perfectly serviceable magical incantations; eg, “Sloop John B” magics up a boat.

    The chapter headings for “Harmony” by Project Itoh are, as I recally, all NIN song titles.

    Further on Moorcock, he wrote a couple of songs for Blue Oyster Cult – “Black Blade” and “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” – that were about Elric of Melnibone, though I don’t think they tied in to specific books. Also, sticking with Blue Oyster Cult for a moment, John Shirley’s debut novel “Transmaniacon” was inspired by the song “Transmaniacon MC”.

  10. I saw Moorcock on stage with Hawkwind at Hammersmith Odeon on the (I think) Stormbringer tour or was it called ‘Chronicles of Black sword’ tour in mid 80s. Moorcock also wrote the firsr Hawklords novel (featoring Hawkwind) in 70s or at least co-wrote.

    Also, although it is not same thing, Siouxsie & Banshees ‘A Kiss in the Dreamhouse’ LP was inspired by Ballard’s Unlimited Dream Company although he wasn’t involved. The first track ‘Cascade’ is brilliant – still send shivers down by spine!

  11. Richard Morgan (at his blog) and Warren Ellis are a couple more sfnal examples, but I think one influential source is possibly the crime genre. John Connolly has produced two cds to accompany his work, and I’ve seen playlists in the works of Peter Robinson too. Music is a major part of the characterisation of Rankin’s John Rebus, Robinson’s Inspector Banks and Billingham’s Tom Thorne, for example.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  12. I’ve had actual soundtracks with all three of my Ambergris novels, in addition to playlists of music I listened to while writing them.

    The idea that having add-ons is gender related as opposed to just writer-specific strikes me as odd.


  13. Matt: You’re right. I could me more clear, and Natural History doesn’t actually fit the pattern – it’s just why I noticed the commonality.

    The author supplying a playlist, outside of the text, that the book was written to? The author assisting with or assenting to the creation of a soundtrack album of original songs based on the text?

    These are the two categories I had in mind, in retrospect.

    I really like the Neil Gaiman comment – thanks for noting it! If collective comments are evidence, then the early part of the 201st decade looks like a particularly rich time for entwining playlists with f&sf.

    Jeff: I wasn’t assuming it was gender-related – I just wondered it if could be, based on the consistency of what evidence came to mind. I can’t say it made any sense to me that it would be, which is why I went fishing for more evidence.

    It still interests me where and when and how playlists are put together for books – and I’m grateful for all the further-evidence provided by commenters and what patterns (representative or not) they may make.

  14. I’ve just finished reading Tricia Sullivan’s Dreaming In Smoke (from 1999?) and it has a soundtrack listed at the end of the book also. It’s clearly not a new phenomenon.

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