Defending the Rock

By Mark YoungFebruary 16, 2013

Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Paula Guran

The best essay ever written about the politics of academic specialization—“Beyond the Rite of Passage in the Academy”— appeared in a 1973 issue of College English, written by Jerry Griswold, at the time a young PhD student, who would grow up to be the director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and an eminent scholar of Mark Twain. In the spirit of that hoary-headed, mustachioed satirist, Griswold skewered the imagined fiefdoms of academic possession by casting them as dragon hoards protected by fire-breath, the treasures of intellectual capital defended against neophyte serfs (graduate students) and scheming rivals (colleagues). The pressures on young scholars to amass a hoard of their own led to, in his entertaining conceit, the curious case of the intellectual junk-dragon, the proud protector of undesired knowledge: “Dunwith of Golgotha’s De Rerum Natura (the Basel Manuscript, Coda II),” would make for an easy topic to defend, he wrote, “since the jewels were Woolworth’s trinkets” and thus inspired no encroachment.

The question of whether the subject of rock music in SF literature has any scholarly exchange value may soon be decided according to such rituals of academic gamesmanship. Indeed, if the recent scholarly attention to the role of music in SF film is any indication, I’d say we are in for something of a battle royale. Following the publication of Philip Hayward’s Off the Planet: Music, Sound, and Science Fiction Cinema in 2004, there has been steady stream of academic titles dedicated to exploring the links between the two areas — William Whittington’s Sound Design and Science Fiction, Mathew Bartkowiak’s Sounds of the Future: Essays on Music in Science Fiction Film — not to mention the most recent subspecialized offshoots, such as Music in Science Fiction Television: Tuned to the Future, edited by K.J. Donnelly and, once again, Philip Hayward. SF scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. perhaps best expressed this critical zeitgeist in his 2008 book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by suggesting that “the most orphaned of sf media is music. Little has appeared in print discussing the relationship between music and sf, a connection that is much richer than may at first appear.” While scholars have clearly answered the call to address music’s role in SF film and television, the question of its relationship to SF literature has thus far been met by radio silence.

The publication of Paula Guran’s Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction and Fantasy marks the first major opportunity to examine the richness of musical tropes in SF literature. The first edited collection of its kind, it entreats the reader to “Kick out the jams with hot licks and fantastic riffs on Rock & Roll from the only kind of fiction that feeds the soul.” If that sounds a little wanting in the “richness” department, the cover image of a young female rocker — crouched in black leather pants and camisole, cradling a Gibson flying-V inside of what looks like a cross between a flooded basement and the crab nebula — does little to suggest otherwise. The book signals an audience of adolescents and stories chosen for maximum entertainment value rather than literary merit.

But looks can be deceiving, and those goals need not be mutually exclusive. Clues about Guran’s specific methodology for selection of the stories appear in the introduction, which she presents as a series of fun “Liner Notes” and “Tracks,” beginning with the transcript of an intergenerational debate about music between herself and her musician son, Erik, a reluctant reader of fiction to whom the anthology is dedicated. It’s a telling exchange that gains poignancy when we learn the book was in part an attempt to “finally produce something he might read” — though sadly, he died before its publication, at the age of twenty-two. With Rock On, Guran sought to meet her son halfway between the confectionary enticements of pop-rock semiotics and the soul-stirring connections engendered by great SF literature. It’s a balance, I’m happy to report, that she largely achieves.

On the entertaining side of the equation, light fantasies of rock stardom and musical celebrity abound in the collection, often combined with madcap set-ups. Elizabeth Bear’s “Hobnoblin Blues” imagines the Norse trickster, Loki, as a rock star; Graham Masterton’s “Voodoo Child” figures Jimi Hendrix as an actual hoodoo man; Charles de Lint’s “That was Radio Clash” offers tribute to Joe Strummer; and the list goes on, with stories about Jeff Beck, Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Janis Joplin, and a dream-robot of James Hetfield — all of the tales engaging for their pure entertainment value.

The standouts of the anthology tend to eschew the wish-fulfillment and return-from-the-grave rock-star hauntings, though, in favor of some deeper illumination of the social, political, and technological changes taking place within the popular music subcultures of the time. Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash,” from 1969, waxes paranoid about a governmental co-optation of rock for propaganda purposes; Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunkish “Rock On” imagines the female body as a musical instrument jacked-in to a network and hijacked for financial gain; John Shirley’s “Freezone” ponders the effects of mega-corporations on musical production in the MTV era; and Bruce Sterling’s “We See Things Differently” offers a glimpse of a future America whose only function in the world economy is the export of musical entertainment, making its last political hope a musical jingoist.

Quirks and peccadilloes mark the collection, and I found myself vexed by aspects of both form and content. In terms of sheer navigability, the book is a little unwieldy, with no discernible ordering scheme to frame the twenty-four stories and novellas, which might have been usefully grouped, say, by tone, chronology, theme, or venue of original publication. I also felt the epochal coverage to be truly lopsided. The 1950s, the Golden Age of rock-n-roll, is not represented at all; the 1960s and 1970s, with only one story apiece. The 1980s fares better with seven, but the bulk of the tales collected here — over half — represent the 1990s and 2000s. In Guran’s defense, the ephemeral nature of the SF magazines, where many of these missing stories reside, no doubt complicated the process of inclusion, a fact that highlights the archival work still necessary to sound the full depths of the musical connection in SF literature.

The question of what to make of the material presented in Rock On is another matter altogether, and may rightly depend on how you approach it. Academic dragons will no doubt posture as the portcullis climbs, new vaults laid bare to expand their demesnes. Whether the hoard consists of gold and jewels — or fusty air and yard-sale trinkets — will not be known until they sift the spoils and make their appraisals. For them (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I count myself among them), let the dragon wars commence. For curious fans of SF, on the other hand, Guran’s Rock On offers entrée into an often zany and occasionally thought-provoking set of musical worlds. A definitive collection of the trope it most certainly is not, but enough new ground is broken here to throw light on a previously-subterranean aspect of the genre. We can only hope more publishers follow Guran’s lead into the musical unknown and echo her tune of fiat lux.

LARB Contributor

Mark Young earned his PhD in English from the University of California, Riverside, with an emphasis in 20th- and 21st-century literature and media. As a writer, his interests include the roles of music, nostalgia, and the fantastic in the processes of artistic creation and public remembering, with his work appearing in Critique: Studies in Contemporary FictionScience Fiction StudiesScience Fiction Film and TelevisionExtrapolation, the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, the SFRA Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. As a teacher and researcher, he has worked at all levels of California’s higher education system and shares a particular interest in how Liberal Arts skills and mentorship drive innovation in both academic and professional spheres. He has served as the assistant director (and acting director) of the Warren College Writing Program at the University of California, San Diego, where he currently teaches students to better align 21st-century S.T.E.M. and Liberal Arts traditions to cultivate the idea-creation and communication skills necessary for the next generation of full-spectrum creative professionals.


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