Kathleen Ann Goonan's Nanotech series has been widely and justly praised for its sophisticated incorporation of music into her very scientifically savvy fiction. Crescent City Rhapsody is the third book (of a projected four) in the series. It follows Queen City Jazz, a New York Times Notable Book of 1994, and Mississippi Blues. In an essay written for Borders.com, Goonan muses on the relationship of music and science in her work.

Science Fiction and All That Jazz

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Science fiction and music go together for me like... well, like Strayhorn and Ellington, like Rodgers and Hart, B.B. King and Lucille, or Monk and his piano.

There are probably scientifically verifiable reasons why this is so. Most of us have had a sound track since birth. I was fortunate in that mine was jazz. Jazz was the only music in our house and on the dad-controlled radio. My father is a deep-dyed jazz aficionado. He's the kind of person who can tell you who sat in on that obscure jazz 78 cut in 1935. He played jazz saxophone but gave it up after World War II while he finished his interrupted college education. "By the time I knew I was any good," he said, "it was too late." I spent my formative years learning that the variation was usually much more interesting than the theme -- but that the theme had to be there, however invisibly, to create the tension required for art.

Music and literature are natural partners. Both have an overall form, a time-bounded sequence of beginning, middle, and end. The lyricism of notes or of words sequenced in a particular way, the cadences of timing or plot, lead, if properly balanced, to a single cumulative experience in the mind of the listener or of the reader. There is an undeniable musicality to great works of literature -- the booming symphony of War and Peace, or the deep-consciousness rhythms of To the Lighthouse, where we might almost be in the mind of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. When an artist (or an improvisational jazz ensemble) composes a work of music or of literature, organizational impulses are at work. We all have musical brains.

Science fiction, like jazz, found its major flowering in America, despite those who claim Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the Ur-text of science fiction. Hugo Gernsback's vision of the scientification of the future thrilled readers with tales of seemingly impossible wonders. But sending the spoken word through wires, flying en masse through the air, and going to the moon turned out to be not fairy tales, but reality. We seized on the wonders made possible by science. We magnified our senses. We did away with big chunks of time and space, or rearranged them. We have changed the rhythms of nature into the rhythm of our own minds and needs via technology, and we are going to be doing a lot more of that. Science fiction is the only literature that takes the real world -- the world of genetic engineering, quantum physics, and other keys to unlocking life's meaning and potential -- seriously.

So how do music and science fiction mesh?

Art is conscious human design -- as in technology, music, or literature -- that takes what is available to experience and the senses and transforms it into something useful, beautiful, or both. Fiction's deep rhythms demand tales of human change. Art is an attempt to defy, at least momentarily, the heat-death of the universe, to pluck random elements from the materials at hand and give them an arrow of time and a satisfying (if often edgy) order. To meld two major musical and literary ideas of the twentieth century, to portray human change in a technological, if musical, milieu, seems to me to be an interesting and almost inevitable enterprise.

My latest book, Crescent City Rhapsody, is a composition that envisions the beginning of the age of nanotechnology as a cascade of events that begins when an electromagnetic pulse from space knocks out communications and computers. The novel's framework is the attempt by one woman, Marie Laveau, to organize nanotechnology's progress by calling on the skills of many scientifically talented people, consciously using as her model Duke Ellington calling on the particular voices of the musicians in his orchestra, to try and keep the world from falling apart in the onslaught of cataclysmic change. She wants to control the uncontrollable: history. The masterpiece she envisions is the creation of a floating city in the Caribbean, free of political machination. It is a fast-paced international SF thriller and one need know nothing about jazz or music nomenclature to enjoy it, but the underpinnings give it an extra dimension. The chapters are titled with descriptive jazz phrases, like "Left-Hand Voicings" and "Extended Riff in Past and Future Minor." The first definition of a "rhapsody," according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, is "a literary work consisting of disconnected pieces"; the second is "an instrumental composition that is irregular in form like an improvisation or free fantasia." This book is somewhat of both, but there is plenty of science in it as well, including the latest research in the biological underpinnings of the magnetic orientation possessed by almost all living creatures and the ways in which honeybees communicate. It is set not only in New Orleans, but in Washington, D.C., Nepal, Kyoto, Hong Kong, and Thailand, all places where I have lived or which I have visited.

And, I hope, it has something that Duke Ellington called "swing."

Queen City Jazz, which was published in 1994 but which follows Crescent City Rhapsody chronologically, is much more improvisational and free-form. It portrays intense cultural mixing and a rearrangement of the ways in which humans can experience time (in the same way that jazz signifies time in a revolutionary fashion). The chapter titles are allusions to various aspects of American art. Mississippi Blues is a straightforward voyage down the Mississippi through an America utterly changed by nanotechnology. It is a series of picaresque adventures, and the chapters are titled descriptively, as are blues songs.

The final book of this quartet, upon which I am presently working, will be published by Avon; the working title is Light Music. This book combines superstring theory, consciousness theory, and music theory to bring the series to its conclusion. We live in a continuum of vibrating frequencies which are conveyed to us via our particular senses as vision and sound; we live in the rhythms and the music light forms within us. Light Music is a fictional attempt to transfer this scientific truth from the realm of the abstract to a place that is deeply and personally meaningful.

This is what childhood exposure to jazz did to me.

And I'm glad.

copyright © 2000 by Kathleen Ann Goonan.

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