As long as human beings are still human beings they are going to want entertainment. Even if they are living on the third planet of Tau Ceti. For the other 23 hours and 55 minutes of a standard day, music is quite popular. So popular in fact that it is often enjoyed simultaneously with other entertainment.

From the primitive hunter-gatherers singing around the tribal fire, to traveling bards/minstrels/jongleur, to symphonies and operas, to player pianos, to Thomas Edison's wax cylinders, to Berliner Gramophone, to jazz and rock-n-roll, to vinyl 45 hit-singles and LP records, to portable transistor radios, to boom-boxes, to Sony Walkman, to Portable CD players, to Apple iPods, to the many ways of streaming music from the internet. Not to mention the many digital audio file formats.

After all, in the science fiction movie Guardians of the Galaxy Peter Quill's most prized possession is his antique Sony Walkman with the Awesome Mix vol. 1 compact cassette tape. Though he did later upgrade to a barely better Microsoft Zune.

Music is here to stay. In science fiction all of the above forms way occur, depending upon the tech level of the locale. And drinking songs in spaceport bars is a pastime that is never going to go out of style.


(ed note: Due to an series of unfortunate events Astronaut David Bowman's fellow astronauts (and one sick AI) are all killed. David finds himself very lonely, as the only human being for 9.5 astronomical units.)

     He kept himself neat and tidy; no matter how tired he became, he never skipped a shave. Mission Control, he knew, was watching him closely for the first signs of any abnormal behavior; he was determined that it should watch in vain — at least, for any serious symptoms.
     Bowman was aware of some changes in his behavior patterns; it would have been absurd to expect anything else in the circumstances. He could no longer tolerate silence; except when he was sleeping, or talking over the circuit to Earth, he kept the ship’s sound system running at almost painful loudness.

     At first, needing the companionship of the human voice, he had listened to classical plays — especially the works of Shaw, Ibsen, and Shakespeare — or poetry readings from Discovery’s enormous library of recorded sounds. The problems they dealt with, however, seemed so remote, or so easily resolved with a little common sense, that after a while he lost patience with them.
     So he switched to opera — usually in Italian or German, so that he was not distracted even by the minimal intellectual content that most operas contained. This phase lasted for two weeks before he realized that the sound of all these superbly trained voices was only exacerbating his loneliness. But what finally ended this cycle was Verdi’s Requiem Mass, which he had never heard performed on Earth. The Dies Irae,” roaring with ominous appropriateness through the empty ship, left him completely shattered; and when the trumpets of Doomsday echoed from the heavens, he could endure no more.
     Thereafter, he played only instrumental music. He started with the romantic composers, but shed them one by one as their emotional outpourings became too oppressive. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, lasted a few weeks, Beethoven rather longer. He finally found peace, as so many others had done, in the abstract architecture of Bach, occasionally ornamented with Mozart.

     And so Discovery drove on toward Saturn, as often as not pulsating with the cool music of the harpsichord, the frozen thoughts of a brain that had been dust for twice a hundred years.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1969)

His finger stabbed the SELECT button for the first tape. Kitaro’s Oasis. He’d start ofi this session, when the winds peaked to their strongest and the ocean hurled daggers at him, with music that reached gently out to him. From Morning Prayer through Aratanaru Tabiji, Kitaro’s New Wave. Not of water per se but of spirit. Hell, that’s appropriate, he conceded, considering the name of this split-tailed tub. He knew the other numbers by heart and knew also that his conscious appreciation of what he’d be hearing would perk up when the strains of Shimmering Horizon mixed with the scream of wind.

He depressed the second button for another Kitaro series with the simple title of Ki. Enough selections in here to bring even more meaning to what might be his final moments. Stream of Being to Endless Water and finally to Cloud in the Sky as the final number. “Leave it to the Japanese to make it only one cloud, ” he grumbled aloud and went on to the third tape.

Daniel Kobialka’s Mind Dance offered a Bolero Medley that would set the stage for two music passages he had always loved: Clair de Lane and then Song for Lisa...

He gritted his teeth, felt Spirit groan from another barrage of roaring wind, and went back to the music selection rack. His finger stabbed the title Deep Breakfast. What a damned dumb name for one of the most stunning musical passages he’d ever heard. He had thought Ray Lynch was crazy until he understood the meaning of the composer, who had once told a friend: “You must be starved, old friend. Come into my apartments, and we’ll suffer through a deep breakfast of pure sunlight. ” Good enough, Ray Lynch, wherever and whoever the hell you are.

That would be enough to mix mind and music with wind and water; from this moment on he wanted the sound to come louder and louder to crash over and against and through him. He worked the computer control for the music rack so that when Midnight Blue slid into position and tore from the powerful speakers embedded in the cabin and the hull, all about him on the decks, he would be inundated with the crystal, soaring voice of Louise Tucker-...

Flashdance choked into position. Irene Cara’s voice would go right through him with the opening number, and he tapped buttons rapidly so that after each successive number on the tape, What A Feeling would play before the next number in line. Power and energy and life would surge from the speakers to tear over him, to make him one with the moment and the danger.

Then the entire sound track from Close Encounters. The whole works, every inch, every decibel, soft to furious, childlike and steamy to raw power. His finger stabbed and the electronics obeyed and the next tape moved into its slot.

He laughed aloud as he brought into position a long double tape of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He didn’t know why he’d insisted to himself that he must include this music. The magic of a much earlier age and the magic of imagination and power all rolled into——well, into whatever it was that called to him.

His laughter ebbed when he came to Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire. That was so goddamned real to this very moment . . . That’s not what bothered him, he admitted to himself. It was the composer. And it wasn't this tape. It was that other one Vangelis had done. Every time he heard it the music hurled him violently back to the horror and agony of those months of bitter survival in Antarctica. How the hell had Vangelis even selected the name?...

He stared at his finger in the shuddering, careening cabin of Spirit, the finger poised over the button that would slide the haunting, icicle-tinkling strains of Vangelis’ Antarctica into its numbered slot. My God, he’d been back there. . . . A shudder spasmed his muscles and he shook himself like a wet dog to shove away the moment, and his hand moved and poised over the last button. A smile creased his stubbled face.

This was more like it. His select, chosen finale. The creation long ago of Alan Hovhaness, a celebration of life and surging energy, of . wonder and . . . And God Created Great Whales. A magnetic capture of Kostelaneu and great whales recorded in the deeps, woven together with the magic of imagination and music, captured here for him. His finger stabbed the button and the tape clicked into place. Done, by damn.

From EXIT EARTH by Martin Caidin (1987)


RocketCat sez

Oh you young whipper-snappers think you are so smart with yer Twitters and Facebooks and Snapchats. But sometimes there are big advantages to doing things old school. Modern junk rots all too easily with format wars, which you might have noticed if you have tried recently to get your data off a Zip cartridge. Especially if your data is a bunch of music files.

Back when I was a kitten in pre-internet days of yore when dinosaurs roamed the earth, if you liked a song on the radio you held up your cassette tape recorder to the loudspeaker and hoped your kid sister would stop yelling. Cassette tape players are even harder to lay your mitts on nowadays, format rot strikes again.

So you have to get back to the basics, the lowest common denominator. Back to the times when instead of listening to radio, you'd wait until a Bard visited your medieval village and sang you some songs! Instead of a tape recorder, you had to memorize the songs. The Bards had to memorize them as well, so they did their best to make it easy. The stories were exciting, the tunes were catchy, and the lyrics rhymed. Especially good songs would spread, which is the middle-ages version of "going viral."

Now below you'll see how the intrepid crew of the Benjamin Franklin used this technique.

They wanted to get their message out to the various inhabited planets. Traveling from planet to planet themselves is a solution that does not scale well. There ain't no interstellar internet. Trying to send data files on USB flash drive ain't gonna work when alien computers don't even use binary, much less have USB ports. So whatcha gonna do?

Get back to basics of course. All the alien star travelers in the cluster share [A] a common pidgin language and [B] a fondness for hanging around in spaceport bars getting plastered while singing drinking songs. So the men of the Benjamin Franklin use Bard song techniques to craft a scaleable solution.


In Poul Anderson's immortal novel After Doomsday the human protagonists have a big problem. They come home from a prolonged trip in their starship the Benjamin Franklin only to discover that the Terra has been nuked into a radioactive cinder by one of the alien races in the neighborhood, and they may be the only humans left alive. Which would be catastrophic because it is an all male crew, spelling the end of the human race. But maybe not, there were other expeditions out and some of them had women.

However they cannot stick around Terra to see if any other Terran ships show up because the entire solar system is swarming with deadly robot homing missiles made on Kandemir (not that is proof that the Kandemirians are guilty, they sell those missiles to everybody). Neither can they leave a radio beacon with a message, the missiles will target that as well. So how do they contact the other Terran ships?

Galactic regions are set up as Civilization Clusters. Small groups of stars colonized by various aliens are surrounded by hundreds of light years of empty wilderness. There is no faster-than-light radio, and no widespread contact between clusters. Getting the word out seems hopeless.

But a Terran has a brilliant idea. He wrote a ballad.

There is a sort of common language called Uru, that everybody in this civilization cluster can more or less speak, and is known in the adjacent clusters.

What there isn't is any poetry or ballads composed in Uru. The aliens didn't see the point.

The humans carefully compose a rollicking majestic ballad, catchy and quite suitable to be a spaceman's drinking song. The ballad was created such that it contained the information that some humans survived the destruction of Terra and could be found at such and such a location. And if you changed the part of the ballad containing that info, it would not rhyme anymore. Therefore the message could not become garbled.

All they had to do was spread it around a bit at the spaceport bars of a few planets, and it would spread everywhere at the speed of rumor. "Hey, Xaxoz, you gotta hear this ballad! It's our new drinking song!". The ballad would go viral. As in "contagious and exponentially self-replicating".

And eventually other surviving Terra starship crew would hear the ballad and know where to go in order to be reunited.

It worked.

The humans had made a scientific discovery that gave them a few exotic space weapons none of the other aliens had. They made an alliance with a few of the races to attack the nomad aliens of Kandemir. The battle and the outcome was the subject of the ballad.

Annotated English version


To the literary historian, this ballad is notable as the first important work of art (as opposed to factual records, scientific treatises, or translations from planetary languages) composed in Uru. However, the student of military technics can best explain various passages which, couched in epical terms, convey the general sense but not the details.

The naval engagement in question was fought near the Brandobar Cluster, an otherwise undistinguished group of stars between Vorlak and Mayast. On the one side was the alliance of Vorlak, Monwaing, and several lesser races. Secret demonstrations of new weapons, combined with indignation at the ruin of Earth, had induced a number of hitherto neutral planets to declare war on Kandemir. Opposed to them was the Grand Fleet of the nomads, which included not only their clan units but various auxiliaries recruited from non-Kandemirian subjects of their empire. Their force was numerically much stronger than the attackers.

* * *

Three kings rode out on the way of war
(The stars burn bitterly clear):
Three in league against Tarkamat,
Master of Kandemir.
And the proudest king, the Vorlak lord,
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
Had been made the servant in all but name
Of a planetless wanderer chief.
And the secondmost king was a wingless bird
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
Who leagued at last with the Vorlak lord
When the exiles were allied.
And the foremost king in all but name
(New centuries scream in birth)
Was the captain of one lonely ship
That had fled from murdered Earth.
For the world called Earth was horribly slain
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
By one unknown; but the corpse's guards
Were built on Kandemir.
The Earthlings fled—to seek revenge
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
For ashen homes and sundered hopes
First seen in unbelief.

And haughty Vorlak spoke to them
(A bugle: the gods defied!):
"Kandemir prowls beyond our gates.
Can ye, then, stay the tide?"
And the Monwaing wisemen spoke to them
(New centuries scream in birth):
"Can ye arm us well, we will league with you,
Exiles from shattered Earth."
And the wanderer captain told the kings
(The stars burn bitterly clear):
"I have harnessed and broken to my will
Space and Force and Fear."
Tarkamat, Master of Kandemir,
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
Laughed aloud: "I will hurl them down
Like a gale-blown autumn leaf."
And he gathered his ships to meet the three
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
As an archer rattles his arrow sheaf
And shakes his bow in pride.

Forth from their lairs, by torchlight suns,
(New centuries scream in birth)
The nomad ships came eager to eat
The wanderers from Earth.
And hard by a cluster of youthful suns
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
Known by the name of Brandobar,
They saw the enemy near.
And the three great kings beheld their foe
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
With half again the ships they had,
Like arrows in a sheaf.
"Now hurl your vessels, my nomad lords,
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
One single shattering time, and then
Their worlds we shall bestride."
"Sleep ye or wake ye, wanderer chief,
(New centuries scream in birth)
That ye stir no hand while they seek our throats,
Yon murderers of Earth?"

Militechnicians can see from the phrasing alone, without consulting records, that the allied fleet must have proceeded at a high uniform velocity—free fall—in close formation. This offered the most tempting of targets to the Kandemirians, whose ships had carefully avoided building up much intrinsic speed and thus were more maneuverable. Tarkamat moved to englobe the allies and fire on them from all sides.

"Have done, have done, my comrades twain.
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
Mine eyes have tallied each splinter and nail
In yonder burning spear.
"Let them come who slew my folk.
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
We wait for them as waits in a sea
The steel-sharp, hidden reef."

The reference here is, of course, to the highly developed interferometric paragravity detectors with which the whole allied fleet was equipped, and which presented to the main computer in their flagship a continuous picture of the enemy dispositions. The nomads had some too, but fewer and of a less efficient model.

Now Kandemir did spurt so close
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
They saw his guns and missiles plain
Go raking for their side.
The exile captain smiled a smile
(New centuries scream in birth)
And woke the first of the wizardries
Born from the death of Earth.
Then Space arose like a wind-blown wave
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
That thunders and smokes and tosses ships
Helpless to sail or steer.
And the angry bees from the nomad hive
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
Were whirled away past Brandobar
Like a gale-blown autumn leaf.

This was the first combat use of the space distorter. The artificial production of interference phenomena enabled the allied craft to create powerful repulsion fields about themselves, or change the curvature of the world lines of outside matter—two equivalent verbalizations of Goldspring's famous fourth equation. In effect, the oncoming enemy missiles were suddenly pushed to an immense distance, as if equipped with faster-than-light engines of their own.

Tarkamat recoiled. That is, he allowed the two fleets to interpenetrate and pass each other. The allies decelerated and re-approached him. He acted similarly. For, in the hours that this required, his scientists had pondered what they observed. Already possessing some knowledge of the physical principles which underlay this new defense, they assured Tarkamat that it must obey the conservation-of-energy law. A ship's power plant could accelerate a missile away, but not another ship of comparable size. Nor could electromagnetic phenomena be much affected.

Tarkamat accordingly decided to match velocities and slug it out at short range with his clumsy but immensely destructive blaster cannon. He would suffer heavy losses, but the greater numbers at his command made victory seem inevitable.

Tarkamat, Master of Kandemir,
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
Rallied his heart. "Close in with them!
Smite them with fire!" he cried.
The nomad vessels hurtled near
(New centuries scream in birth)
And the second wizardry awoke,
Born from the death of Earth.
Then Force flew clear of its iron sheath.
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
Remorseless lightnings cracked and crashed
In the ships of Kandemir.
And some exploded like bursting suns
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
And some were broken in twain, and some
Fled shrieking unbelief.

Over small distances, such allied vessels as there had been time to equip with it could use the awkward, still largely experimental, but altogether deadly space-interference fusion inductor. The principle here was the production of a non-space band so narrow that particles within the nucleus itself were brought into contiguity. Atoms with positive packing fractions were thus caused to explode. Only a very low proportion of any ship's mass was disintegrated, but that usually served to destroy the vessel. More than half the Kandemirian fleet perished in a few nova-like minutes.

Tarkamat, unquestionably one of the greatest naval geniuses in galactic history, managed to withdraw the rest and re-form beyond range of the allied weapon. He saw that—as yet—it was too restricted in distance to be effective against a fortified planet, and ordered a retreat to Mayast II.

Tarkamat, Master of Kandemir,
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
Told his folk, "We have lost this day,
But the next we may abide.
"Hearten yourselves, good nomad lords.
(New centuries scream in birth)
Retreat with me to our own stronghold.
Show now what ye are worth!"
The third of those wizardries awoke
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
Born from the death of Earth. It spoke,
And the name of it was Fear.
For sudden as death by thunderbolt,
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
Ringing within the nomad ships
Came the voice of the exile chief.
Tarkamat, Master of Kandemir,
(New centuries scream in birth)
Heard with the least of his men the words
Spoken from cindered Earth.

On the relatively coarse molecular level, the space-interference inductor was both reliable and long-range. Carl Donnan simply caused the enemy hulls to vibrate slightly, modulated this with his voice through a microphone, and filled each Kandemirian ship with his message.

"We have broken ye here by Brandobar.
(The stars burn bitterly clear)
If ye will not yield, we shall follow you
Even to Kandemir.
"But our wish is not for ashen homes,
(The stormwinds clamor their grief)
But to make you freemen once again
And not a nomad fief.
"If ye fight, we will hurl the sky on your heads.
(A bugle: the gods defied!)
If ye yield, we will bring to your homes and hearts
Freedom to be your bride.
"Have done, have done; make an end of war
(New centuries sing in birth)
And an end of woe and of tyrant rule—
In the name of living Earth!"

Tarkamat reached a cosmic interference fringe and went into faster-than-light retreat. The allies, though now numerically superior, did not pursue. They doubted their ability to capture Mayast II. Instead, they proceeded against lesser Kandemirian outposts, taking these one by one without great difficulty. Mayast could thus be isolated and nullified.

The effect of Donnan's words was considerable. Not only did this shockingly unexpected voice from nowhere strike at the cracked Kandemirian morale; it offered their vassals a way out. If these would help throw off the nomad yoke, they would not be taken over by the winning side, but given independence, even assistance. There was no immediate overt response; but the opening wedge had been driven. Soon allied agents were being smuggled onto those planets, to disseminate propaganda and organize underground movements along lines familiar to Earth's history.

Thus far the militechnic commentator. But the literary scholar sees more in the ballad. Superficially it appears to be a crude, spontaneous production. Close study reveals it is nothing of the sort. The simple fact that there had been no previous Uru poetry worth noticing would indicate as much. But the structure is also suggestive. The archaic imagery and exaggerated, often banal descriptions appeal, not to the sophisticated mind, but to emotions so primitive they are common to every spacefaring race. The song could be enjoyed by any rough-and-ready spacehand, human, Vorlakka, Monwaingi, Xoan, Yannth, or whatever—including members of any other civilization-cluster where Uru was known. And, while inter-cluster traffic was not large nor steady, it did take place. A few ships a year did venture that far.

Moreover, while the form of this ballad derives from ancient European models, it is far more intricate than the present English translation can suggest. The words and concepts are simple; the meter, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration are not. They are, indeed, a jigsaw puzzle, no part of which can be distorted without affecting the whole.

Thus the song would pass rapidly from mouth to mouth, and be very little changed in the process. A spacehand who had never heard of Kandemir or Earth would still get their names correct when he sang what to him was just a lively drinking song. Only those precise vocables would sound right.

So, while the author is unknown, The Battle of Brandobar was obviously not composed by some folkish minstrel. It was commissioned, and the poet worked along lines carefully laid down for him. This was, in fact, the Benjamin Franklin's message to humans throughout the galaxy.

From After Doomsday by Poul Anderson (1961). Collected in To Outlive Eternity
The Ballad Of Brandobar

I envisage at least three passages by Poul Anderson adapted to screen:

  • the opening section of "The Game of Glory" (see an earlier post)
  • the introduction and conclusion of The Earthbook Of Stormgate
  • the Ballad of Brandobar from After Doomsday (St Albans, Herts, 1975, pp. 127-135)

James Blish commended how, having built up to a major space battle, Anderson then described that battle in a ballad written after the event.

The ballad comprises thirty five quatrains, rhyming abcb. Thus, the opening quatrain reads:

"Three kings rode out on the way of war
"(The stars burn bitterly clear):
"Three in league against Tarkamat
"Master of Kandemir." (p. 127)

(The ballad of John Barleycorn begins with "Three kings...")

The second line of each quatrain in the Ballad of Brandobar is:

"(The stars burn bitterly clear):",
"(The stormwinds clamour their grief)",
"(A bugle: the gods defied!)",
"(New centuries scream in birth)"

- or, in the concluding quatrain:

"(New centuries sing in birth)" (p. 133)

Anderson gives us the "Annotated English version" since the original was in Uru. The annotations are explanatory prose passages inserted between some of the quatrains, e.g.:

"Militechnicians can see from the phrasing alone..." (p. 129)

"The reference here is, of course, to the highly developed interferometric paragravity detectors..." (p. 130) etc.

Thus, I think there should be three voices:
  • one chanting the first, third and fourth line of each quatrain
  • a second interrupting with each second line
  • a third solemnly intoning the annotations
We need sound effects for stormwinds, bugle, screaming and singing, visuals for "stars" and for the narrative, I think static graphics or brief animations to illustrate the story which includes:

"For the world called Earth was horribly slain..." (p. 128)

- and ends with:

" 'Have done, have done; make an end of war
" (New centuries sing in birth)
"And an end of woe and of tyrant rule -
"In the name of living Earth!' " (p. 133)

How dramatic is that?

The first quatrain is preceded by two paragraphs explaining that the ballad is "...the first important work of art...composed in Uru." (p. 127) Previously, this interstellar language had been use only for "...factual records, scientific treaties, or translations from planetary languages..." (p. 127) Should that have read, "...factual records, scientific treatises, political treaties, or translations..."? (I have noticed quite a few typos in my edition of After Doomsday.)

From The Ballad Of Brandobar by Paul Shackley ()


Back in 1981 U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp convened the Human Interference Task Force. The team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioral scientists and others were handed a thorny problem and was instructed to look for possible solutions.

Nuclear reactors produce regrettable amounts of nuclear waste. The general solution was to bury them in nuclear repositories, such as the proposed Yucca Mountain facility. Naturally signs would be placed on top with dire warning of hideous radioactive death if you are stupid enough to dig here.

The problem is that the blasted stuff is going to be dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. It took lots of scientific work for modern day scientist to figure out how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, and they are merely 4,000 years old. You would probably be hard pressed to read Beowulf, which is only 1,000 years old, and written in an early form of English to boot.

What sort of warning do you post so random wandering tribes ten thousand years from now can read it?

One of the more interesting suggestions from the task force was the Raycat Solution.

Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri solution had two parts:

  1. Genetically engineer a breed of domestic cat which change significantly in color when exposed to radiation. Furry geiger counters, in other words. These are called Radiation Cats or Ray Cats.
  2. Embed into the collective awareness that a cat changing color means the cat is standing on a dangerous place. And you are standing there as well. Run away.

Cats were chosen because they have cohabited with humans for thousands of years and continue to be popular. Dogs were not chosen because they are typically seen as subservient creatures and looked down upon. Cats on the other hand were once worshiped as gods. Genetically engineering them to be radiation detectors will be tedious but straightforwards.

Embedding the message into the collective awareness is a bit more difficult. Fairy tales and myths can be written, but how do you transmit them into the culture? Well, by paintings, music, and poetry. Ah, perhaps ballads could be used.

Unfortunately the DoE gave Bastide and Fabbri the hairy eyeball, and dismissed their suggestion. Too weird to be taken seriously. They wrote up their proposal in a scientific paper which was not widely read because it was in German. It faded into oblivion.

Cut to the year 2014. Writer Matthew Kielty of the 99% Invisible podcast was desperately surfing the web trying to find a topic for his next article. He stumbled over an article about the Human Interference Task Force, which was mildly interesting. But he braked to a halt when he got to the bit about ray cats. This was totally bizarre, totally whimsical, and totally suited to be included in an article. His article was called Ten Thousand Years, which noted that the ray cat solution was the 99% Invisible favorite.

A few days after the article was published, Kielty's editor mentioned that the article was getting a lot of hits on the internet. Kielty glanced online, only to discover that the ray cat concept had gone viral! A student group of biologist were actually starting experimentation on genetically engineering radiation detecting organisms (they are starting with one-celled microorganisms). A group had designed the Ray Cat Logo.

And the musician known as Emperor X wrote the RayCat Earworm: "Don't Change Color, Kitty". This is a Ballad, and will have all the same advantages exploited by the Ballad of Brandobar.


Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that pretty gray.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Keep sickness away.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Please, 'cause if you do,
or glow your luminescent eyes
we're all gonna have to move.

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that pretty gold.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color,
and we'll keep you from the cold.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, 'cause
we need your kind around.
But the minute you change your looks,
we're bringing you with us out of town.

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
No, I don't know why.
Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
God said it's not right.
So don't change color
or flash your eyes.
Lord knows if you do,
I hope you think it's cozy in your travel case,
because it's time to move.

Don't change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that midnight black.
The radiation that the change implies
can kill, and that's a fact.
The radiation, whatever that is,
is something we don't want,
'cause it withers our crops
and it burns our skin
and it turns our livestock gaunt.

So don't change color, little kitty.
Don't flash your eyes.

by Emperor X

Kielty later visited Paolo Fabbri in Italy, to talk about the Ray Cat solution. Fabbri was resigned that the solution was a bit too far-fetched to be taken seriously. But he was flabbergasted when Kielty presented him with a Ray Cat T-shirt, and the news about the song and the genetic engineering. The whimsical nature of the solution caught the imagination of creative people, and the power of a viral idea was shown again. The Ray Cat solution may become reality by individual efforts instead of government action.

You can see more about the viral Ray Cat story in the award winning documentary by Benjamin Huguet.


Let the sweet fresh breezes heal me
As they rove around the girth
Of our lovely mother planet
Of the cool, green hills of Earth.

We rot in the molds of Venus,
We retch at her tainted breath.
Foul are her flooded jungles,
Crawling with unclean death.

[ --- the harsh bright soil of Luna ---
--- Saturn's rainbow rings ---
--- the frozen night of Titan --- ]

We've tried each spinning space mote
And reckoned its true worth:
Take us back again to the homes of men
On the cool, green hills of Earth.

The arching sky is calling
Spacemen back to their trade.
And the lights below us fade.

Out ride the sons of Terra,
Far drives the thundering jet,
Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
Out, far, and onward yet ---

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.

Robert A. Heinlein

(ed note: This is an example of Filk Music: folk songs with science fiction or fantasy themes popular at SF conventions. I used to enjoy going to Boskone.)

Oh, give me a locus where the gravitons focus
        Where the three-body problem is solved,
        Where the microwaves play down at three degrees K,
        And the cold virus never evolved.                       (chorus)
We eat algea pie, our vacuum is high,
        Our ball bearings are perfectly round.
        Our horizon is curved, our warheads are MIRVed,
        And a kilogram weighs half a pound.                     (chorus)
If we run out of space for our burgeoning race
        No more Lebensraum left for the Mensch
        When we're ready to start, we can take Mars apart,
        If we just find a big enough wrench.                    (chorus)
I'm sick of this place, it's just McDonald's in space,
        And living up here is a bore.
        Tell the shiggies, "Don't cry," they can kiss me goodbye
        'Cause I'm moving next week to L4!                      (chorus)

CHORUS: Home, home on LaGrange,
        Where the space debris always collects,
        We possess, so it seems, two of Man's greatest dreams:
        Solar power and zero-gee sex.
                -- sung to tune of "Home on the Range"
Copyright © 1978 by William S. Higgins and Barry D. Gehm. All Rights Reserved.				
From HOME ON LAGRANGE by William S. Higgins and Barry D. Gehm (1977)

Bards and Minstrels

Bards and Minstrels are medieval traveling singers and sources of news. The old warning is: "Do not anger a bard, for thy name is silly, and scans to Greensleeves". In legend bards could even topple kings from their thrones by spreading anti-royalist propaganda disguised as merry tunes. The TV Trope is called Wandering Minstrel

They are not generally useful in a modern society with high-speed internet, television, and radio (except perhaps as spin-doctors, advertisement jingle-writers, and creators of propaganda for political reelection campaigns). However, in a science fictional future which has faster-than-light travel but no faster-than-light communication, such people might become useful again. Currently the only known phenomenon which is superluminal is a rumor.

This is why many science fiction stories has the protagonists getting fresh news at the starport bar, after a starship arrives.

Ad campaigns and spin doctoring which wants to go viral across interstellar distances might resort to encoding the propaganda in the form of a song. It worked in medieval times, and it might work in science fiction.

From the time of the ancient Greeks comes the myth of Orpheus. He could use his music to charm all living things, and even a few non-living ones. He almost managed to free his dead fiancé from Hades except the idiot couldn't follow instructions.

The Orpheus myth is so compelling that science fiction writer cannot resist using transposing it into an SF key:


(ed note: In the story, the first "space colony" was three large spaceships in Terra orbit. Unfortunately the children born were mutants. The people of Terra freaked out because they are always hysterically xenophobic about anything slightly different. They call the mutants "IDs".

Terra forms the OSI guards, who post a guard ship on the three ID spaceship. It is to prevent the three ships from returning to Terra and giving the people of Terra space-cooties. Which is impossible, but just try explaining reality to hysterical xenophobic morons. The OSI guard ship is also to prevent the three ID ships from leaving Terra, because fark you.

The IDs manage to survive, somehow, living on algae and carefully metered oxygen. Several generations pass, with the OSI ship contemptuously ignoring the ID's pleas for the lives of their children. Because everybody knows IDs are not really human beings, just subhuman monsters. Which is because this is the official propaganda all Terrans are taught in their schoolbooks.

Desperate, the three ID ships attack the OSI guard ship and manage to escape into the asteroid belt. There the IDs form colonies. As it turns out, their mutations allow them to florish in the free-fall environment.

Terra freaks out and sends fleets of OSI ships. There follows a series of basically pointless wars.

Then OSI Major Hopkins manages to capture an ID. She is a "Mauki", an ID bard-singer. Major Hopkins is a poisonous little bigot whose parents were not married.)

     Major Hopkins was half asleep when the singing began. It was low, and soft, and for a while he was not sure whether he was hearing or dreaming. It was a woman’s voice. And there was only one woman aboard this big spaceship. He reached out in the darkness, and picked up his phone.
     “Control? Hopkins. Tell the guards to shut that woman up!
     “You mean the mauki, sir ?”
     “Yes, the mauki! Tell her to shut up. I can’t sleep.” He slammed the phone hack in its clip...
     ...“Shut her up?” Corcelli said. “Have you listened to her? That voice! She could tear the soul out of a corpse.” Hopkins slid off the sleeping shelf, and went into the jumpway of the big spaceship. The lights were on, and he could see half dressed men clumped around the brig. And he could hear the singing clearly—
     The lights were on, and he could see half dressed men clumped around the brig. And he could hear the singing clearly—
Do you dream of Earth
And broad blue seas
The clear blue sky
The tall green trees
The birds that fly
In the warm spring breeze
The leaves that die
The brooks that freeze
And the snows that lie
In majestic ease.
And the wives who cry

Do you dream of Mars
And scorching sands
The clear thin air
The crusted lands
The rocks that tear
The miners’ hands
The cliffs that stare
At the burnt brown hands
Of shrubs that share
The sun seared lands
And the wives who care
     “All right men, at ease.” No one seemed to notice his approach.
     ...“Attention! ATTENTION !” It was a command this time. There were awkward off-balance salutes. A murmur. “You men look like green cadets. Out of sectors after watch. You know the rules on this ship. A month’s pay dock for all of you, and three days on yeast and water.” His voice was hard, echoing off the thin metal walls in harsh overtones...
     ...The mauki had been captured eighteen hours before, fished out of a little crippled scooter that was drifting, just inside the nearest Ring clump. The big OSI spaceship eased up to it cautiously, and grappled it into the air lock. There was a woman and a seven-year-old boy aboard...
     ...In the meantime, he had to hide.
     Sleek, streamlined 6-G spaceships were all right for air-space jumps, but for the long orbits, light 1-G jobs meant fuel economy, and spheres had the added advantage of the lowest possible moment of inertia, which meant valuable maneuverability in the Rings. The OSI spaceship, a thin magnesium ball of sixty meter radius, had the military disadvantage of a characteristically regular silhouette, that made it as easy to spot as a cue ball in a coal bin.
     Hopkins had the big spaceship moved slowly against a huge dark drifting rock mass, and blacked out so it was almost impossible to distinguish it from the meteorite...
     ...The singing crept softly through the ship, a warm background tone to the small shuffling noises the waiting men made. It got louder, and Corcelli looked at the major. The pressure bulkhead was in battle-ready, half shut, but the whispering sounds seeped into the control cabin, and grew louder, into words.
Where is your home, wanderer?
Your home, your home
That house, that wife
The sighing breeze
That stirs tall trees
Cuts like a knife
Wherever you roam
Where is your home, wanderer?
     The chant had a strange rhythm, and the mauki’s voice sounded some times like a strangled sob. Corcelli felt a tightness in his throat. He switched on the recorder quietly.
Out on your jets, thunderer.
Your jets, your jets
That squealing scream
shuddering dumb
Outreaching stream
But have no regrets.
Out on your jets, wanderer.
     “What is this? A morgue?” Hopkins snapped. His harsh voice shot up to a high pitch, and he coughed. Nobody spoke. “Talk, will you. Talk!” He looked around hostilely. Corcelli turned to the radar man to say something, but the technician had a faraway look in his eyes.
Do you hate the taste
Of tank grown food?
And hate this hell
Of walls gun-blued
A whining shell
Of rocket-spewed
Once-men. The wail
Of jets subdued
The oily smell
Of air renewed
And—up! The bell!

Do you miss the sloosh
Of Venus bogs
The squish of clay
And rotting logs
The night’s damp gray
The drizzling fogs
That drench each day
The big mulch clogs
That ooze away
And the wives who pray
     ...“There is a song,” the mauki explained, “which tells the history very well.”
     Hopkins leaned back on the G couch, his hollow face hard and white.
     The mauki began:
First was hard bright burning light
Then long months of outward flight
Out to far abhelion
By the orbit of our earth
Out from perihelion
Inside the inner ring
Where hull plates sing

Then there was the gravi-braking
Weary clumsy orbit making—
     They listened. There was a strange shifting tempo to the song, because the mauki wasn’t singing, but just talking. It was word magic, rise and fall, intensification and inflection. The mauki bared the history of the IDs to them, the mutants—
Swollen bodies, crumbled minds
Freaks and monsters
Mutants deaf and sick and blind—
     The formation of OSI, the inspection—
Then the curse came, bitter exile
Ultimatum, Live a while
in a paralyzed ellipse
Prisoners of justice
In three weary, leaky ships
Till the yeast and algae mola
And the ships grow cold.
     This ID history was different than they had ever heard before. It was the ID’s side of the story.
All infants born in Space are IDs
A single static rote that rids
The earth of interest in us
And out in Space we lived
Air bleeding in the emptiness
Measured food and measured air
Measured years to death we share.
     She told of the sudden wave of normal births—
Little freaklinqs sickened, died
Little ID-lings lived and grew
     The wasted pleas for the lives of the ID-lings, the attack on the in spection rocket, the escape,
In the three ships, silent waiting
Weary exiles tired of hating
Ended mission
Nothing left
A-bomb sections change position
Nuclear fission.
A fleeing spaceship. Behind a light.
Only silent empty night
Asteroid Rings our hiding place
In the barren wastes
And outer depths of Space
Living, dying
     Her voice drifted down the still passageways of the huge spacesphere, clutching at their souls, lifting buried feelings from disciplined death, breathing the past of a hunted race eking out a bare existence from the cold rocks of the Rings. Then the great ID-human wars, and
Earthlings labor, cursing praying
Stream to battle undelaying
Torn from air and soil
Out to Space
Worn by weightlessness and toil
Angry world
Spaceward hurled.
     She traced the wars, the battles, the futility, the sorrow. Then the tone shifted slightly.
Hate and hunt and harry. Why?
Man has land, and ID has sky
To each his own
In peace
Each to his own
End the hate
Night grows late.
     “All right, that’s enough of that,” Hopkins snapped quickly. But his voice went unheard. The mauki threw her head back, and sang the last verse, her voice reaching down the gangways. It wasn’t the loudness, it was something in the overtones, making the thin metal walls hum in resonance, trebling, clear, rich, commanding—
Let our wish be understood
A treaty, truce, a brotherhood
Now, to save the race
Worlds were made for men
IDs were born for Space
Let ID ships roam
Now. Orbit home.
     “Shut up!” Hopkins snarled. He started halfway out of his G-couch, but the mauki shook her head, and pressed her finger to her lips in a gesture of silence. The major stopped in surprise, and then settled back on the edge of the couch.
     “We’ve heard enough of your lies,” he said. He noticed that no one was listening to him. “ATTENTION !” he roared, his voice breaking almost into a shriek. Heads snapped to stiff attention. “You will disregard everything you have heard this woman say. As you know from your basic education, it is all lies. Stupid emotional stuff.”

     It was just before the watch change that the radar went. The chant—they called it the “mauki chant”— was a throaty trill, almost at the upper limit of hearing, hanging like an anguished violin note, and penetrating. There was an odd quality to the notes, so penetrating that the walls whined, and trembled to the touch. Then the radar set blew.
     The blowout was peculiar, a sudden series of pops, and no radar. It was the tubes. A half dozen of the same type tubes had shattered. They weren’t hot, and the connections all looked O.K...
     ...Hopkins looked at the officers and crewmen, his face hard, his mouth twisted into a bitter sneer. “The radar goes and we’re sitting here helpless, and none of you knows what shattered the tubes?” There was no answer. “We could be sheared in two by a meteorite, or caught in an ID attack — and not know it was coming.” The sneer was almost a smile. “Did any of you ever see someone shatter a fine glass by hitting a certain chord on the piano, or violin ?” There was a murmur.
     “You’ve heard of such things, haven’t you? Know what it’s called ?”
     “Resonance,” Corcelli said.
     “Right. Resonance. Sound vibrations at the natural frequency of the shattered glass. Over and over. Intensification. Know what happens then ?”
     “Increased amplitude.”
     “Right. Increased amplitude, crystal fatigue, and disintegration. Which is what happened to the tubes. Something in this ship was vibrating at the resonant frequency of the shattered tubes, and is vibrating now at the natural frequency of those other tubes.” The glass had a definite whine. Hopkins damped one, smothering it with his hand. “No dice,” he said, “that the destruction is to similar tubes, which means we can’t replace all of them.”
     “But what’s causing this vibration ?” the technician asked. Hopkins looked around at them coldly.
     “Just listen,” he said. They listened tensely, and—
     The mauki chant...
Wives that wait and silent weep
Men that outward spin through deep
Unresisting void and glide
Cross the system, onward ride
Inward, faster, maximum.
Gravi-braking, home they come
What good tears when hearts are cold?
Going boys, returning old
Grim and bitter, hardened men.
Home, then out to Space again.
Life a chain of quick good-byes
Thrusting upwards to the skies
Meetings, partings, sadness, pain.
Home, then out to Space again.

Earthlings, shape your orbits home
You were never meant for Space
We were born to ride the night
Howling down a lonesome flight
Feeling Space with eyes and mind
Earthlings, back! Your eyes are blind.
Build your cities, till your soil
Sweat, and understand your toil.
Keep your roots deep in the ground
Watch the sun and stars go round
Never really knowing why.
We are dwellers of the sky
You have nothing here to gain
Only fear and haunting pain
Tortured lonely thoughts remain.
Back! Go back while you are sane.
Earthlings, shape your orbits home.

(ed note: An ID ship boards the OSI ship and rescues the Mauki, since the OSI's radar has been shattered. They leave.

Major Hopkins freaks out since he knows when the OSI finds out that he had a Mauki but manage to lose her, his career will be over. He threatens first officer Corcelli, telling him to keep his mouth shut, and pretend they never captured the Mauki in the first place.

Corcelli later discovers that the recorder he switched on was still recording. He puts it somewhere safe, because it has a recording of Hopkins ordering him to hide evidence of the Mauki, which is a felony. At the trial it will save Corcelli's rump and put Hopkins into the slammer.

But the rest of the tape will be played in open court. Including the Mauki's chant with the true history of the Terran-ID war. This will leak out, exposing the false propaganda in the schoolbooks, and eventually leading to peace between the Terrans and the IDs. Corcelli realizes this was the Mauki's plan all along.

Behold the power of a Bard's song.)

From THE MAUKI CHANT by J. A. Meyer (1951)

(ed note: Our heroes are from a Terran colony that backslid to about 17th century level technology after the fall of the first galactic empire, and are currently on a covert mission to a colony that backslid to medieval level technology. They are trying to help defend a city against the local version of the Mongol hordes. The city knights know little about modern tactics and their heads are full of stupid notions of about diving into the hordes of enemies on horseback for honor and glory. Which just gets them killed. But Brett is a Bard.)

      "And your knights, Vanjynk?" MacKinnie asked.
     "They drill well, they wheel to the trumpets, but they still do not like turning from the battle. Nor do I, but I see it must be done." Vanjynk lifted his cup and gulped the wine. "You fight strangely on your world, star man."
     "Lay off that talk," Stark muttered. "We have enough trouble with the Temple people without that."
     MacKinnie nodded. "Hal's right. But tell me, will the knights obey the trumpets?"
     "I believe so," Brett answered. "They have little wish to be killed by barbarians. But there is no fear of death in these men, only of dishonor."
     "Aye, so Brett made a song about foolish knights who abandoned their commander and were shamed forever," MacLean said. "Silly thing, but catchy. Seems to have helped."
     "If songs help, sing your lungs out," MacKinnie told them. "The key to this whole battle is getting the heavy cavalry to bear on the barbarians while they're bunched up. Nothing on this world can stand up to a charge from those armored ironheads, but as soon as they lose their momentum and scatter, the maris can pick them off with no trouble at all."

From KING DAVID'S SPACESHIP by Jerry Pournelle (1981)



I mulled over things I had heard Mr. Dubois — Colonel Dubois — say, as well as his extraordinary letter, while we went swinging back toward camp. Then I stopped thinking because the band dropped back near our position in column and we sang for a while, a French group — "Marseillaise," of course, and "Madelon" and "Sons of Toil and Danger," and then "Legion Étrangère" and "Mademoiselle from Armentières."

It's nice to have the band play; it picks you right up when your tail is dragging the prairie. We hadn't had anything but canned music at first and that only for parade and calls. But the powers-that-be had found out early who could play and who couldn't; instruments were provided and a regimental band was organized, all our own — even the director and the drum major were boots.

It didn't mean they got out of anything. Oh no! It just meant they were allowed and encouraged to do it on their own time, practicing evenings and Sundays and such — and that they got to strut and countermarch and show off at parade instead of being in ranks with their platoons. ...

...The band suffered a lot of attrition but somehow they always kept it going. The camp owned four sets of pipes and some Scottish uniforms, donated by Lochiel of Cameron whose son had been killed there in training — and one of us boots turned out to be a piper; he had learned it in the Scottish Boy Scouts. Pretty soon we had four pipers, maybe not good but loud. Pipes seem very odd when you first hear them, and a tyro practicing can set your teeth on edge — it sounds and looks as if he had a cat under his arm, its tail in his mouth, and biting it.

But they grow on you. The first time our pipers kicked their heels out in front of the band, skirling away at "Alamein Dead," my hair stood up so straight it lifted my cap. It gets you — makes tears.

We couldn't take a parade band out on route march, of course, because no special allowances were made for the band. Tubas and bass drums had to stay behind because a boy in the band had to carry full kit, same as everybody, and could only manage an instrument small enough to add to his load. But the M. I. has band instruments which I don't believe anybody else has, such as a little box hardly bigger than a harmonica, an electronic gadget which does an amazing job of faking a big horn and is played the same way. Comes band call when you are headed for the horizon, each bandsman sheds his kit without stopping, his squadmates split it up, and he trots to the column position of the color company and starts blasting.

It helps.

The band drifted aft, almost out of earshot, and we stopped singing because your own singing drowns out the beat when it's too far away.

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

(ed note: Barnum and Baily are Partners, that is, Barnum is a human being merged with Baily. The latter is a "symb", an intelligent plant creature who is symbiotically merged with Barnum's body. Anyway, such Partners live around Saturn's rings and are inspired to compose music. When they do, they travel to sell their composition to a producer. They have traveled to the firm of Ragtime and Tympani. The lady Tympani works with them to translate their composition into musical notation because B&B wouldn't know a treble cleff if it flew straight up their behind. During a break, Tympani shows them a prototype for a new musical instrument called a Synapticon. Just so you know Tympani does not have feet, she has extra hands called "peds.")

      “When you go back out,” she (Tympani) said, “Why don’t you give some thought to working in a synapticon part for your next work?”
     “What’s a synapticon?”
     She stared at him, not believing what she had heard. Then her expression changed to one of delight.
     “You really don’t know? Then you have something to learn.” And she bounced over to her desk, grabbed something with her peds, and hopped back to the synthesizer. It was a small black box with a strap and a wire with an input jack at one end. She turned her back to him and parted her hair at the base of her skull.
     “Will you plug me in?” she asked.
     Barnum saw the tiny gold socket buried in her hair, the kind that enabled one to interface directly with a computer. He inserted the plug into it and she strapped the box around her neck. It was severely funtional, and had an improvised, breadboarded look about it, scarred with tool marks and chipped paint. It gave the impression of having been tinkered’ with almost daily.
     “It’s still in the development process,” she said. “Myers—he’s the guy who invented it—has been playing with it, adding things. When we get it right we’ll market it as a necklace. The circuitry can be compacted quite a bit. The first one had a wire that connected it to the speaker, which hampered my style considerably. But this one has a transmitter. You’ll see what I mean. Come on, there isn’t room in here.”

     She led the way back to the outer office and turned on a big speaker against the wall.
     “What it does,” she said, standing in the middle of the room with her hands at her sides, “is translate body motion into music. It measures the tensions in the body nerve network, amplifies them, and…well, I’ll show you what I mean. This position is null; no sound is produced.” She was standing straight, but relaxed, peds together, hands at her sides, head slightly lowered.
     She brought her arm up in front of her, reaching with her hand, and the speaker behind her made a swooping sound up the scale, breaking into a chord as her fingers closed on the invisible tone in the air. She bent her knee forward and a soft bass note crept in, strengthening as she tensed the muscles in her thighs.
     She added more harmonics with her other hand, then abruptly cocked her body to one side, exploding the sound into a cascade of chords. Barnum sat up straight, the hairs on his arms and spine sitting up with him.
     Tympani couldn’t see him. She was lost in a world that existed slightly out of phase with the real one, a world where dance was music and her body was the instrument. Her eyeblinks became stacatto punctuating phrases and her breathing provided a solid rhythmic base for the nets of sound her arms and legs and fingers were weaving.
     The beauty of it to Barnum and Bailey was the perfect fitting together of movement to sound. He had thought it would be just a novelty: sweating to twist her body into shapes that were awkward and unnatural to reach the notes she was after. But it wasn’t like that. Each element shaped the other. Both the music and the dance were improvised as she went along and were subordinate to no rules but her own internal ones.
     When she finally came to rest, balancing on the tips of her peds and letting the sound die away to nothingness, Barnum was almost numb. And he was surprised to hear the sound of hands clapping. He realized it was his own hands, but he wasn’t clapping them. It was Bailey. Bailey had never taken over motor control.

     They had to have all the details. Bailey was overwhelmed by the new art form and grew so impatient with relaying questions through Barnum that he almost asked to take over Barnum’s vocal cords for a while.
     Tympani was surprised at the degree of enthusiasm. She was a strong proponent of the synapticon but had not met much success in her efforts to popularize it. It had its limitations, and was viewed as an interesting but passing fad.
     “What limitations?” Bailey asked, and Barnum vocalized.
     “Basically, it needs free-fall performance to be fully effective. There are residual tones that can’t be eliminated when you’re standing up in gravity, even on Janus. And I can’t stay in the air long enough here. You evidently didn’t notice it, but I was unable to introduce many variations under those conditions.”
     Barnum saw something at once.
     “Then I should have one installed. That way I can play it as I move through the Ring.”
     Tympani brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. She was covered in sweat from her performance, and her face was flushed. Barnum almost didn’t hear her reply, he was so intent on the harmony of motion in that simple movement. And the synapticon was turned off.
     “Maybe you should. But I’d wait if I were you.” Barnum was about to ask why but she went on quickly. “It isn’t an exact instrument yet, but we’re working on it, refining it every day. Part of the problems, you see, is that it takes special training to operate it so it produces more than white noise. I wasn’t strictly truthful with you when I told you how it works.”
     “How so?”
     “Well, I said it measures tensions in nerves and translates it. Where are most of the nerves in the body?
     Barnum saw it then. “In the brain.
     “Right. So mood is even more important in this than in most music. Have you ever worked with an alpha-wave device? By listening to a tone you can control certain functions of your brain. It takes practice. The brain provides the reservoir of tone for the synapticon, modulates the whole composition. If you aren’t in control of it, it comes out as noise.
     “How long have you been working with it?”
     “About three years.”

From GOTTA SING, GOTTA DANCE by John Varley (1976)

There is a hollow, holey cylinder running from hilt to point in my machete. When I blow across the mouthpiece in the handle, I make music with my blade. When all the holes are covered, the sound is sad, as rough as rough can be and be called smooth. When all the holes are open, the sound pipes about, bringing to the eye flakes of sun on water, crushed metal. There are twenty holes. And since I’ve been playing music I’ve been called all different kinds of fool-more times than Lobey, which is my name.

(ed note: apparently he plays it with his fingers and toes)

From THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION by Samuel R. Delany (1967)

      FROM behind the high seat Taras lifted a helmet bossed in gold and placed it on the king's head.
     A Helmet of Silence (i.e., functional equivalent of ear-plugs).
     The cheering faded, and was not.
     The king said hoarsely, "Then for the good of Moneb, I must disband the council,"
     Taras stepped forward. He looked directly at Simon, and his eyes smiled. "We had foreseen your traitorous counsels, John Keogh. And so we came prepared."

     He flung back his cloak. Beneath it, in the curve of his left arm, was something wrapped in silk.
     Simon instinctively stepped back.
     Taras ripped the silk away. And in his hands was a living creature no larger than a dove, a thing of silver and rose-pearl and delicate frills of shining membrane, and large, soft, gentle eyes.
     A dweller in the deep forests, a shy sweet bearer of destruction, an angel of madness and death.
     A Harper!

     A low moan rose among the councilors, and there was a shifting and a swaying of bodies poised for flight. Taras said, "Be still. There is time enough for running, when I give you leave."
     The councilors were still. The king was still, whitefaced upon his throne. But on the shadowy benches, Simon saw Keogh's son bent forward, yearning toward the man he thought to be his father, his face alight with a child's faith.

     Taras stroked the creature in his hands, his head bent low over it.
     The membranous frills began to lift and stir. The rose-pearl body pulsed, and there broke forth a ripple of music like the sound of a muted harp, infinitely sweet and distant.
     The eyes of the Harper glowed. It was happy, pleased to be released from the binding silk that had kept its membranes useless for the making of music. Taras continued to stroke it gently, and it responded with a quivering freshet of song, the liquid notes running and trilling upon the silent air.
     And two more of the helmeted men brought forth silvery, soft-eyed captives from under their cloaks, and they began to join their music together, timidly at first, and then more and more without hesitation, until the council hall was full of the strange wild harping and men stood still because they were too entranced now to move.

     Even Simon was not proof against that infinitely poignant tide of thrilling sound. He felt his body respond, every nerve quivering with a pleasure akin to pain.
     He had forgotten the effect of music on the human consciousness. For many years he had forgotten music. Now, suddenly, all those long-closed gates between mind and body were flung open by the soaring song of the Harpers. Clear, lovely, thoughtless, the very voice of life unfettered, the music filled Simon with an aching hunger for he knew not what. His mind wandered down vague pathways thronged with shadows, and his heart throbbed with a solemn joy that was close to tears.
     Caught in the sweet wild web of that harping, he stood motionless, dreaming, forgetful of fear and danger, of everything except that somewhere in that music was the whole secret of creation, and that he was poised on the very edge of understanding the subtle secret of that song.
     Song of a newborn universe joyously shouting its birth-cry, of young suns calling to each other in exultant strength, the thunderous chorus of star-voices and the humming bass of the racing, spinning worlds!
     Song of life, growing, burgeoning, bursting, on every world, complicated counterpoint of a million million species voicing the ecstasy of being in triumphant chorus!
     Something deep in Simon Wright's tranced mind warned him that he was being trapped by that hypnotic web of sound, that he was falling deeper, deeper, into the Harpers' grip. But he could not break the spell of that singing.
     Soaring singing of the leaf drinking the sun, of the bird on the wing, of the beast warm in its burrow, of the young, bright miracle of love, of birth, of living!

     And then the song changed. The beauty and joy faded from it, and into the sounds came a note of terror, growing, growing ...

     IT came to Simon then that Taras was speaking to the thing he held, and that the soft eyes of the Harper were afraid. The creature's simple mind was sensitive to telepathic impulses, and Taras was filling its mild emptiness with thoughts of danger and of pain, so that its membranes shrilled now to a different note.
     The other Harpers picked it up. Shivering, vibrating together and across each other's rhythms, the three small rose-pearl beings flooded the air with a shuddering sound that was the essence of all fear.
     Fear of a blind universe that lent its creatures life only to snatch it from them, of the agony and death that always and forever must rend the bright fabric of living! Fear of the somber depths of darkness and pain into which all life must finally descend, of the shadows that closed down so fast, so fast!

     That awful threnody of primal terror that shuddered from the Harpers struck icy fingers of dread across the heart. Simon recoiled from it, he could not bear it, he knew that if he heard it long he must go mad.
     Only dimly was he aware of the terror among the other councilors, the writhing of their faces, the movements of their hands. He tried to cry out but his voice was lost in the screaming of the Harpers, going ever higher and higher until it was torture to the body.
     And still Taras bent over the Harper, cruel-eyed, driving it to frenzy with the power of his mind. And still the Harpers screamed, and now the sound had risen and part of it had slipped over the threshold of hearing, and the super-sonic notes stabbed the brain like knives.

     A man bolted past Simon. Another followed, and another, and then more and more, clawing, trampling, falling, floundering in the madness of panic. And he himself must flee!
     He would not flee! Something held him from the flight his body craved – some inner core of thought hardened and strengthened by his long divorcement from the flesh. It steadied him, made him fight back with iron resolution, to reality.

     His shaking hand drew out the little metal box. The switch clicked. Slowly, as the power of the thing built up, it threw out a high, shrill keening sound.
     "The one weapon against the Harpers!" Curt had said. "The only thing that can break sound is – sound!"
     The little repeller reached out its keening sonic vibrations and caught at the Harpers' terrible singing, like a claw.
     It clawed and twisted and broke that singing. It broke it, by its subtle sonic interference, into shrieking dissonances.
     Simon strode forward, toward the throne and toward Taras. And now into the eyes of Taras had come a deadly doubt.

     The Harpers, wild and frightened now, strove against the keening sound that broke their song into hideous discord. The shuddering sonic struggle raged, much of it far above the level of hearing, and Simon felt his body plucked and shaken by terrible vibrations.
     He staggered, but he went on. The faces of Taras and the others were contorted by pain. The king had fainted on his throne.
     Storm of shattered harmonies, of splintered sound, shrieked like the very voice of madness around the throne. Simon, his mind darkening, knew that he could endure no more ...

     And suddenly it was over. Beaten, exhausted, the Harpers stilled the wild vibration of their membranes. Utterly silent, they remained motionless in the hands of their captors, their soft eyes glazed with hopeless terror.
     Simon laughed. He swayed a little on his feet and said to Taras,
     "My weapon is stronger than yours!"
     Taras dropped the Harper. It crawled away and hid itself beneath the throne. Taras whispered,
     "Then we must have it from you, Earthman!"
     He sprang toward Simon. On his heels came the others, mad with the bitter fury of defeat when they had been so sure of victory.
     Simon snatched out the audio-disc and raised it to his lips, pressing its button and crying out the one word, "Hurry!"
     He felt that it was too late. But not until now, not until this moment when fear conquered the force of tradition, could Curt and Otho have entered this forbidden place without provoking the very outbreak that must be prevented.

From THE HARPERS OF TITAN by Edmond Hamilton (1950)

Thoughtfully, he reached into a locker for a little hemispherical musical instrument. Absently, he touched its strings, bringing forth queer, shivering, haunting tones.

The instrument was a twenty-string Venusian guitar, two sets of strings each strung across each other on a metal hemisphere. Few Earthmen could play the complicated thing but Captain Fture had a habit of plucking haunting tones from it when he was lost in thought.


A laser harp is an electronic musical user interface and laser lighting display. It projects several laser beams—and a musician plays these by blocking them to produce sounds-reminiscent of a harp. The laser harp has been popularized by Jean Michel Jarre, and has been a high profile feature of almost all his concerts since 1981. British electronic musician Little Boots has used a similar instrument in concerts. The British electro jazz band 1201-Alarm feature a laser harp as a main aspect of their live show.


Unframed style, also known as "Infinite Beam" laser harps

This style of laser harp is generally built using a single laser, splitting its beam into an array of beams in parallel or fan arrangement. Playing the actual sound is usually handled by connecting the laser harp to a synthesizer, sampler or computer.

This frameless design is more elaborate than the framed style, relying on reflecting the light back to a single photodiode. The fan of laser beams is actually a single beam scanned into a fan pattern. By matching the timing of the reflected beam, the instrument can determine which beam the player is blocking and sound the corresponding note. Alternative designs use multiple lasers. In these designs, each laser can be independently controlled (pulsed on and off) to simulate playback of prerecorded notes.

Several techniques generate more control data, such as a continuous range of values like those in typical MIDI controllers:

  • An infrared or ultrasonic rangefinder attached to the instrument that determines the position of the hand that blocks a beam
  • A laser-based rangefinder that determines the distance from the hand to the laser's starting or ending point (and possibly using this laser itself as the string)—or a variation of this that uses the intensity of the sensor signal itself
  • A camera that tracks position and motion of the laser dot on the hand, or length of the exposed beam if visible, then calculates a continuous value based upon a reference

The first of these is relatively inexpensive and straightforward to implement, and can use the same micro-controller that drives the lasers and reads the detectors.

The advantage of a dedicated sensor mechanism is that the instrument can be self-contained, as opposed to requiring a computer to control it with input from an ILDA interface and USB camera. The PC-based approach, however, offers more flexibility and can be constructed with mostly off-the-shelf hardware.

Unframed laser harps benefit from the use of higher-power lasers, as they facilitate easier detection by the sensor system. As the sensor is exposed to all ambient light, it can be swamped by stage lighting behind the artist if the sensitivity is too high. To avoid this, the system can use ambient light sensors to reject ambient light. The player may use white or light-coloured gloves to improve performance by scattering more light off the player's hands to provide the sensor with a higher signal-to-noise ratio with respect to ambient light. Furthermore, the gloves protect the player's skin from potentially hazardous laser radiation and give audiences a more visual impression of the instrument.

Bi-color and full color laser harps

In 2005 the first free full color ILDA laser harp Genesis controller idea and project was born on laserist board and the domain was registered. The last sensor designed rejects ambient light and can measure the hand height in the beams. It offers the possibility to play on the sound like the pitch, filters; these things were not really available before. Free software allows the musician to create patches, playlists, color presets like rainbow, visual effects, midi channel and virtual harp to test. The last functions added to this model are the automatic learning of the song by playing it on a keyboard and the beam vibration to simulate a real string dumped vibration (idea submitted by Francis Rimbert).

In 2008 Maurizio Carelli, an Italian software and electronic engineer, had the idea of a new portable red/green laser harp. This device features a configurable full octave with green beams for any diatonic note and red ones for any chromatic note for full Diatonic and Chromatic scale. In this way any musician can easily play a laser harp, fully polyphonic. This machine became the first portable bicolor laser harp, and it is still in production. In the second half of 2010, Carelli also designed an ILDA full color laser harp controller.

Unframed style, "Image recognition" laser harp

The image recognition laser harp is also an unframed design, but uses a high-speed USB camera connected to a laptop computer, instead of a photodiode to detect the reflected light from the hand breaking the beam. The digital picture is analyzed by the computer software to determine which beam is broken and send the appropriate MIDI signal back to the synthesizer, which is responsible for creating the sound. The computer also controls the laser projector via an ILDA USB laser controller.

Framed style

The framed style, which is often created to look like a harp with strings, uses an array of photodiodes or photoresistors inside the upper or lower part of the frame to detect blocking of the laser beams. The framed harp built by Geoffrey Rose in 1975/6 was an octagonal shape with a 5 X 5 matrix of laser beams. The lasers can be mounted on the 'neck' or upper side of the harp, shining down, or on the body, shining up. Typically, the lasers used are very low-powered 5 mW red or green lasers, which are considered safe for public interaction by the FDA. Any number of laser beams can be arranged in this type of laser harp, from as few as one or two, up to 32 or more, depending on the capacity of the MIDI controller(s) and software being used. This style of Laser Harp can be created in any size, from a lap sized harp to a room sized installation, or larger, like the installations seen at Burning Man. In this design, only an analog DC (on/off) trigger is created by the breaking of the beam (and the DC circuit made by the beam shining on the optic sensor), which is sufficient to trigger any number of events (musical or otherwise) as determined by the data analyzer/software in question. In the MIDI controller, this analog DC current interruption is converted to a digital signal, which is then used to trigger many possible events or actions. Some software comes equipped with full wave file editors and synthesizers, and can also trigger video and still imagery via projection units.

Typical framed style laser harp software functions

Play Modes:

  • Trigger Mode — In this mode, breaking a beam always triggers the event, sound (a sample, loop or MIDI note), image or video that that particular beam has been preset to trigger. Each beam will always trigger its own preset event when broken. e.g. If the beam number one is set to play a bass drum and beam two a snare drum; then one will always play a bass drum and two a snare.
  • Sequence Mode — In this mode, breaking any of the beams plays a preset melody or song one note at a time. Familiar tunes may be played by the breaking the beams in time with the song. Little or no musical ability is required to play a tune. Similarly, a sequence of images could be displayed or an image could be built up one part at a time.
  • Event Mode — When broken, a beam set to 'Event Mode' can change octaves, sounds, songs or programmed settings for any or all of the beams.

Switch Modes:

  • On-Off — A sound will play only while a beam remains broken. The sound stops when the beam is unbroken.
  • Play to end — Once triggered, a sound will play to the end regardless of when the beam is unbroken.
  • Toggle Mode — Breaking a beam the first time triggers a sound which plays to the end (or loops) until the beam is broken a second time.

All beams do not have to be set to the same Play or Switch Mode - each beam may be set up differently.

From the Wikipedia entry for LASER HARP



     Biron looked it over slowly. “And you build gadgets here? What kind of gadgets?”
     “Well, special sounding devices to spy out the Tyrannian spy beams in a brand-new way. Nothing they can detect. That’s how I found out about you, when the first word came through from Aratap. And I have other amusing trinkets. My visi-sonor, for instance. Do you like music?”
     “Some kinds.”
     “Good. I invented an instrument, only I don’t know if you can properly call it music.” A shelf of book films slid out and aside at a touch. “This is not really much of a hiding place, but nobody takes me seriously, so they don’t look. Amusing, don’t you think? But I forget, you’re the unamused one.”
     It was a clumsy, boxlike affair, with that singular lack of gloss and polish that marks the homemade object. One side of it was studded with little gleaming knobs. He put it down with that side upward.
     “It isn’t pretty,” Gillbret said, “but who in Time cares? Put the lights out. No, no! No switches or contacts. Just wish the lights were out. Wish hard! Decide you want them out.”
     And the lights dimmed, with the exception of the faint pearly luster of the ceiling that made them two ghostly faces in the dark. Gillbret laughed lightly at Biron’s exclamation.
     “Just one of the tricks of my visi-sonor. It’s keyed to the mind like personal capsules are (message capsules that can only be opened by their intended recipient). Do you know what I mean?”
     “No, I don’t, if you want a plain answer.”
     “Well,” he said, “look at it this way. The electric field of your brain cells sets up an induced one in the instrument. Mathematically, it’s fairly simple, but as far as I know, no one has ever jammed all the necessary circuits into a box this size before. Usually, it takes a five-story generating plant to do it. It works the other way too. I can close circuits here and impress them directly upon your brain, so that you’ll see and hear without any intervention of eyes and ears. Watch!”
     There was nothing to watch, at first. And then something fuzzy scratched faintly at the corner of Biron’s eyes. It became a faint blue-violet ball hovering in mid-air. It followed him as he turned away, remained unchanged when he closed his eyes. And a clear, musical tone accompanied it, was part of it, was it.
     It was growing and expanding and Biron became disturbingly aware that it existed inside his skull. It wasn’t really a color, but rather a colored sound, though without noise. It was tactile, yet without feeling.
     It spun and took on an iridescence while the musical tone rose in pitch till it hovered above him like falling silk. Then it exploded so that gouts of color splattered at him in touches that burned momentarily and left no pain.
     Bubbles of rain-drenched green rose again with a quiet, soft moaning. Biron thrust at them in confusion and became aware that he could not see his hands nor feel them move. There was nothing, only the little bubbles filling his mind to the exclusion of all else.
     He cried out soundlessly and the fantasy ceased. Gillbret was standing before him once again in a lighted room, laughing. Biron felt an acute dizziness and wiped shakily at a chilled, moist forehead. He sat down abruptly.
     “What happened?” he demanded, in as stiff a tone as he could manage.
     Gillbret said, “I don’t know. I stayed out of it. You don’t understand? It was something your brain had lacked previous experience with. Your brain was sensing directly and it had no method of interpretation for such a phenomenon. So as long as you concentrated on the sensation, your brain could only attempt, futilely, to force the effect into the old, familiar pathways. It attempts separately and simultaneously to interpret it as sight and sound and touch. Were you conscious of an odor, by the way? Sometimes it seemed to me that I smelled the stuff. With dogs I imagine the sensation would be forced almost entirely into odor. I’d like to try it on animals someday.
     “On the other hand, if you ignore it, make no attack upon it, it fades away. It’s what I do, when I want to observe its effects on others, and it isn’t difficult.”
     He placed a little veined hand upon the instrument, fingering the knobs aimlessly. “Sometimes I think that if one could really study this thing, one could compose symphonies in a new medium; do things one could never do with simple sound or sight. I lack the capacity for it, I’m afraid.”

     But Gillbret said, “Let him take his cloak, men.”
     Biron, startled, looked quickly toward the little man and retracted that same surrender. He knew he had no cloak.
     The guard whose weapon was out clicked his heels as a gesture of respect. He motioned his whip at Biron. “You heard milord. Get your cloak and snap it up!”
     Biron stepped back as slowly as he dared. He retreated to the bookcase and squatted, groping behind the chair for his nonexistent cloak. And as his fingers clawed at the empty space behind the chair, he waited tensely for Gillbret.
     The visi-sonor was just a queer knobbed object to the guards. It would mean nothing to them that Gillbret fingered and stroked the knobs gently. Biron watched the muzzle of the whip intensely and allowed it to fill his mind. Certainly nothing else he saw or heard (thought he saw or heard) must enter. But how much longer?
     The armed guard said, “Is your cloak behind that chair? Stand up!” He took an impatient step forward, and then stopped. His eyes narrowed in deep amazement and he looked sharply to his left.
     That was it! Biron straightened and threw himself forward and down. He clasped the guard’s knees and jerked. The guard was down with a jarring thud, and Biron’s large fist closed over the other’s hand, grasping for the neuronic whip it contained.
     The other guard had his weapon out, but for the moment it was useless. With his free hand, he was brushing wildly at the space before his eyes.
     Gillbret’s high-pitched laugh sounded. “Anything bothering you, Farrill?”
     “Don’t see a thing,” he grunted, and then, “except this whip I’ve got now.”
     “All right, then leave. They can’t do anything to stop you. Their minds are full of sights and sounds that don’t exist.” Gillbret skipped out of the way of the writhing tangle of bodies.
     Biron wrenched his arms free and heaved upward. He brought his arm down solidly just below the other’s ribs. The guard’s face twisted in agony and his body doubled convulsively. Biron rose, whip in hand.
     “Careful,” cried Gillbret.
     But Biron did not turn quickly enough. The second guard was upon him, bearing him down again. It was a blind attack. What it was that the guard thought he was grasping, it was impossible to tell. That he knew nothing of Biron at the moment was certain. His breath rasped in Biron’s ear and there was a continuous incoherent gurgle bubbling in his throat.
     Biron twisted in an attempt to bring his captured weapon into play and was frighteningly aware of the blank and empty eyes that must be aware of some horror invisible to anyone else.

     Yet, though Biron did not know it, the guard’s grip had relaxed, and minutes later, when the young man could force his eyes open and blink away the tears, he found the guard backed against the wall, pushing feebly at nothing with both hands and giggling to himself. The first guard was still on his back, arms and legs spread-eagled now. He was conscious, but silent. His eyes were following something in an erratic path, and his body quivered a little. There was froth on his lips.

From THE STARS, LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov (1951)

     Mis shrugged, and turned again to Magnifico. He unwrapped the package, “Know what this is, boy?”
     Magnifico fairly hurled himself out of his seat and caught the multikeyed instrument. He fingered the myriad knobby contacts and threw a sudden back somersault of joy, to the imminent destruction of the nearby furniture.
     He croaked, “A Visi-Sonor — and of a make to distill joy out of a dead man’s heart.” His long fingers caressed softly and slowly, pressing lightly on contacts with a rippling motion, resting momentarily on one key then another — and in the air before them there was a soft glowing rosiness, just inside the range of vision.
     Ebling Mis said, “All right, boy, you said you could pound on one of those gadgets, and there’s your chance. You’d better tune it, though. It’s out of a museum.” Then, in an aside to Bayta, “Near as I can make it, no one on the Foundation can make it talk right.”
     He leaned closer and said quickly, “The clown won’t talk without you. Will you help?”
     She nodded.
     “Good!” he said. “His state of fear is almost fixed, and I doubt that his mental strength would possibly stand a psychic probe. If I’m to get anything out of him otherwise, he’s got to feel absolutely at ease. You understand?”
     She nodded again.
     “This Visi-Sonor is the first step in the process. He says he can play it; and his reaction now makes it pretty certain that it’s one of the great joys of his life. So whether the playing is good or bad, be interested and appreciative. Then exhibit friendliness and confidence in me. Above all, follow my lead in everything.” There was a swift glance at Magnifico, huddled in a comer of the sofa, making rapid adjustments in the interior of the instrument. He was completely absorbed.
     Mis said in a conversational tone to Bayta, “Ever hear a Visi-Sonor?”
     “Once,” said Bayta, equally casually, “at a concert of rare instruments. I wasn’t impressed.”
     “Well, I doubt that you came across good playing. There are very few really good players. It’s not so much that it requires physical coordination — a multi-bank piano requires more, for instance — as a certain type of free-wheeling mentality.” In a lower voice, “That’s why our living skeleton there might be better than we think. More often than not, good players are idiots otherwise. It’s one of those queer setups that makes psychology interesting.”
     He added, in a patent effort to manufacture light conversation, “You know how the beblistered thing works? I looked it up for this purpose, and all I’ve made out so far is that its radiations stimulate the optic center of the brain directly, without ever touching the optic nerve. It’s actually the utilization of a sense never met with in ordinary nature. Remarkable, when you come to think of it. What you hear is all right. That’s ordinary. Eardrum, cochlea, all that. But — Shh! He’s ready. Will you kick that switch. It works better in the dark.”
     In the darkness, Magnifico was a mere blob, Ebling Mis a heavy-breathing mass. Bayta found herself straining her eyes anxiously, and at first with no effect. There was a thin, reedy quaver in the air, that wavered raggedly up the scale. It hovered, dropped and caught itself, gained in body, and swooped into a booming crash that had the effect of a thunderous split in a veiling curtain.
     A little globe of pulsing color grew in rhythmic spurts and burst in midair into formless gouts that swirled high and came down as curving streamers in interfacing patterns. They coalesced into little spheres, no two alike in color — and Bayta began discovering things.
     She noticed that closing her eyes made the color pattern all the clearer; that each little movement of color had its own little pattern of sound; that she could not identify the colors; and, lastly, that the globes were not globes but little figures.
     Little figures; little shifting flames, that danced and flickered in their myriads; that dropped out of sight and returned from nowhere; that whipped about one another and coalesced then into a new color.
     Incongruously, Bayta thought of the little blobs of color that come at night when you close your eyelids till they hurt, and stare patiently. There was the old familiar effect of the marching polka dots of shifting color, of the contracting concentric circles, of the shapeless masses that quiver momentarily. All that, larger, multivaried — and each little dot of color a tiny figure.
     They darted at her in pairs, and she lifted her hands with a sudden gasp, but they tumbled and for an instant she was the center of a brilliant snowstorm, while cold light slipped off her shoulders and down her arm in a luminous ski-slide, shooting off her stiff fingers and meeting slowly in a shining midair focus. Beneath it all, the sound of a hundred instruments flowed in liquid streams until she could not tell it from the light.
     She wondered if Ebling Mis were seeing the same thing, and if not, what he did see, The wonder passed, and then—
     She was watching again. The little figures — were they little figures? — little tiny women with burning hair that turned and bent too quickly for the mind to focus? — seized one another in star-shaped groups that turned — and the music was faint laughter — girls’ laughter that began inside the ear.
     The stars drew together, sparked towards one another, grew slowly into structure — and from below, a palace shot upward in rapid evolution. Each brick a tiny color, each color a tiny spark, each spark a stabbing light that shifted patterns and led the eye skyward to twenty jeweled minarets.
     A glittering carpet shot out and about, whirling, spinning an insubstantial web that engulfed all space, and from it luminous shoots stabbed upward and branched into trees that sang with a music all their own.
     Bayta sat inclosed in it. The music welled about her in rapid, lyrical flights. She reached out to touch a fragile tree and blossoming spicules floated downwards and faded, each with its clear, tiny tinkle.
     The music crashed in twenty cymbals, and before her an area flamed up in a spout and cascaded down invisible steps into Bayta’s lap, where it spilled over and flowed in rapid current, raising the fiery sparkle to her waist, while across her lap was a rainbow bridge and upon it the little figures — A palace, and a garden, and tiny men and women on a bridge, stretching out as far as she could see, swimming through the stately swells of stringed music converging in upon her—
     And then — there seemed a frightened pause, a hesitant, indrawn motion, a swift collapse. The colors fled, spun into a globe that shrank, and rose, and disappeared.
     And it was merely dark again.
     A heavy foot scratched for the pedal, reached it, and the light flooded in; the flat light of a prosy sun. Bayta blinked until the tears came, as though for the longing of what was gone. Ebling Mis was a podgy inertness with his eyes still round and his mouth still open.
     Only Magnifico himself was alive, and he fondled his Visi-Sonor in a crooning ecstasy.
     “My lady,” he gasped, “it is indeed of an effect the most magical. It is of balance and response almost beyond hope in its delicacy and stability. On this, it would seem I could work wonders. How liked you my composition, my lady?”

From FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov (1952)

     On his lap in crumpled leather, It might have been a harp, it might have been a computer. With inductance surfaces like a theremin, with frets like a guitar, down one side were short drones as on a sitar. On the other were the extended bass drones of a guitarina. Parts were carved from rosewood. Parts were cast from stainless steel. It had insets of black plastic, and was cushioned with plush...
     ...Leo did something with the controls. There was a clear ringing; the air shivered; and cutting out the olid odor of wet rope and tar was the scent of ... orchids? A long time ago, perhaps at five or six, the Mouse had smelled them wild in the fields edging a road...
     ...Leo's hand moved; shivering became shimmering. Brightness fell from the air, coalesced in blue light whose source was somewhere between them. The odor moistened to roses.
     "It works!" rasped the Mouse.
     Leo nodded. "Better than the one I used to have. The Illyrion battery almost brand-new is. Those things I on the boat used to play, can still play, I wonder." His face furrowed. "Not too good going to be is. Out of practice am." Embarrassment rearranged Leo's features into an expression the Mouse had never seen. Leo's hand closed to the tuning haft.
     Where light had filled the air, illumination shaped to her, till she turned and stared at them over her shoulder.
     The Mouse blinked.
     She was translucent; yet so much realer by the concentration he needed to define her chin, her shoulder, her foot, her face, till she spun, laughing, and tossed surprising flowers at him. Under the petals the Mouse ducked and closed his eyes...
     ...He opened his eyes.
     Oil, the yellow water of the Horn, sludge; but the air was empty of blossoms. Leo, his single boot on the bottom rung of the rail, was fiddling with a knob.
     She was gone.
     "But ..." The Mouse took a step, stopped, balancing on his toes, his throat working. "How ...?"
     Leo looked up. "Rusty, I am! I once pretty good was. But it a long time is. Long time. Once, once, this thing I truly could play."...
     "Can you show me how to play it?'...
     ...Now the Mouse came to work later and later. He stayed on the boat as long as possible. The harbor lights winked down the mile-long docks, and Asia flickered through the fog while Leo showed him where each projectable odor, color, shape, texture, and movement hid in the polished syrynx. The Mouse's eyes and hands began to open....
     Two years later, when Leo announced that he had sold his boat and was thinking of going to the other side of Draco, perhaps to New Mars to fish for dust skates, the Mouse could already surpass the tawdry illusion that Leo had first shown him.

     ...Somebody was jostling forward. Still playing, the Mouse looked up.
     Blind Dan lurched out, stopped, then staggered in the syrynx's fire.
     "Hey, come on, get out of there -- "
     "Come on, old man, move -- "
     "We can't see what the kid's making -- "
     In the middle of the Mouse's creation, Dan swayed, head wagging.
     The Mouse laughed; then his brown hand closed over the projection haft, and light and sounds and smells deflated around a single, gorgeous demon who stood before Dan, bleating, grimacing, flapping scaled wings that shifted color with each beat. It yowled like a trumpet, twisted its face to resemble Dan's own, but with a third eye spinning.
     The people began to laugh.
     The spectre leaped and squatted to the Mouse's fingers. Malevolently the gypsy grinned.
     Dan staggered forward, one arm flailing through.
     Shrieking, the demon turned its back, bent. There was a sound like a flutter valve and the spectators howled at the stink.
     Katin, who was leaning on the rail next to the Mouse, felt embarrassment heat his neck.
     The demon cavorted.
     Then Katin reached down and put his palm over the visual inductance field and the image blurred.
     The Mouse looked up sharply. "Hey -- "
     "You don't have to do that," Katin said, his big hand burying the Mouse's shoulder...

     ..."Take your syrynx, Mouse." Lorq walked to the sculptured rock on the yellow tiles. "If I told you to make a nova, Mouse, what would you do?" He sat on a stone outcrop.
     "I don't know. What do you mean?" The Mouse lifted his instrument from its sack. His thumb ran the finger board. His fingers walked the inductance plate; the pinky staggered on its stilted nail.
     "I'm telling you now. Make a nova."
     The Mouse paused. Then, "All right," and his hand jumped.
     Sound rumbled after the flash. Colors behind the afterimage blotted vision, swirled in a diminishing sphere, were gone.
     "Down!" Sebastian was saying. "Down now ...
     Lorq laughed. "Not bad. Come here. No, bring your hell-harp." He shifted on the rock to make room. "Show me how it works."
     "Show you how to play the syrynx?"
     "That's right."
     There are expressions that happen on the outside of the face; there are expressions that happen on the inside, with only quivers on the lips and eyelids. "I don't usually let people fool with my ax." Lips and eyelids quivered.
     "Show me."
     The Mouse's mouth thinned. He said: "Give me your hand." As he positioned the captain's fingers across the saddle of the image-resonance board, blue light glowed before them. "Now look down here." The Mouse pointed to the front of the syrynx. "These three pin-lenses have hologramic grids behind them. They focus where the blue light is and give you a three-dimensional image. Brightness and intensity you control here. Move your hand forward."
     The light increased -- "Now back."
     -- and dimmed. "How do you make an image?"
     "Took me a year to learn, Captain. Now, these strings control the sound. Each one isn't a different note; they're different sound textures. The pitch is changed by moving your fingers closer or further away. Like this." He drew a chord of brass and human voices that glissandoed into uncomfortable subsonics. "You want to smell up the place? Back here. This knob controls the intensity of the image. You can make the whole thing highly directional by -- "
     "Suppose, Mouse, there was a girl's face that I wanted to re-create; the sound of her voice saying my name; the smell of her too. Now, I have your syrynx in my hands." He lifted the instrument from the Mouse's lap. "What should I do?"
     "Practice. Captain, look, I really don't like other people fooling with my ax -- "...

     ...Prince stood. "Now, I'm going to kill you." He stepped over Sebastian's feet as the stud's heels gouged the carpet. "Does that answer your question?"
     It came up from somewhere deep below Lorq's gut, moored among yesterdays. Bliss made his awareness of its shape and outline precise and luminous. Something inside him shook. From the hammock of his pelvis it clawed into his belly, vaulted his chest and wove wildly, erupted from his face; Lorq bellowed. In the sharp peripheral awareness of the drug, he saw the Mouse's syrynx where it had been left on the stage. He snatched it up --
     "No, Captain!"
     -- as Prince lunged. Lorq ducked with the instrument against his chest. He twisted the intensity knob.
     The edge of Prince's hand shattered the doorjamb (where a moment before the Mouse had leaned). Splinters split four and five feet up the shaft.
     "Captain, that's my ...!"
     The Mouse leaped, and Lorq struck him with his flat hand. The Mouse staggered backward and fell in the sand-pool.
     Lorq dodged sideways and whirled to face the door as Prince, still smiling, stepped away.
     Then Lorq struck the tuning haft.
     A flash.
     It was reflection from Prince's vest; the beam was tight. Prince flung his hand up to his eyes. Then he shook his head, blinking.
     Lorq struck the syrynx again.
     Prince clutched his eyes, stepped back, and screeched.
     Lorq's fingers tore at the sound-projection strings. Though the beam was directional, the echo roared about the room, drowning the scream. Lorq's head jarred under the sound. But he beat the sounding board again. And again. With each sweep of his hand, Prince reeled back. He tripped on Sebastian's feet, but did not fall. And again. Lorq's own head ached. That part of his mind still aloof from the rage thought: his middle ear must have ruptured. ... Then the rage climbed higher in his brain. There was no part of him separate from it.
     And again.
     Prince's arms flailed about his head. His ungloved hand struck one of the suspended shelves. The statuette fell.
     Furious, Lorq smashed at the olfactory plate.
     An acrid stench burned his own nostrils, seared the roof of his nasal cavity so that his eyes teared.
     Prince screamed, staggered; his gloved fist hit the plate glass. It cracked from floor to ceiling.

     ..."Oh, come on, Mouse. See, I've stopped babbling. Don't be glum. What are you so down about?"
     "My syrynx ...
"      "So you got a scratch on it. But you've been over it a dozen times and you said it won't hurt the way it plays."
     "Not the instrument." The Mouse's forehead wrinkled. "What the captain did with ..." He shook his head at the memory.
     "And not even that." The Mouse sat up.
     "What then?"
     Again the Mouse shook his head. "When I ran out through the cracked glass to get it ..."
     Katin nodded.
     "The heat was incredible out there. Three steps and I didn't think I was going to make it. Then I saw where Captain had dropped it, halfway down the slope. So I squinched my eyes and kept going. I thought my foot would burn off, and I must have got halfway there hopping. Anyway, when I got it, I picked it up, and ... I saw them."
     "Prince and Ruby?"
     "She was trying to drag him back up the rocks. She stopped when she saw me. And I was scared." He looked up from his hands. His fingers were clenched; nails cut the dark palms. "I turned the syrynx on her, light, sound, and smell all at once, hard. Captain doesn't know how to make a syrynx do what he wants. I do. She was blind, Katin. And I probably busted both her eardrums. The laser was on such a tight beam her hair caught fire, then her dress -- "
     "Oh, Mouse ..."
     "I was scared, Katin!

From NOVA by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

Cora pointed them out to Rachael, who responded by picking indiiferently at the strings of her neurophon.

“Stop that.” Cora frowned at her. “You know better than that.”

Rachael wrinkled her brow. “Oh, Mother … I’ve got the projection matrix turned oil and the power way down. I can’t possibly bother the shuttle.”

But Cora had experienced a telltale if faint tingle along her spine. “Your axonics are lit. I felt it. You might disturb the other passengers.”

“I haven’t heard any complaints,” Rachael said softly. But she touched several contact points on the chordal dendritics, cut final power. She plucked petulantly at one string. It produced a normal musical tone that drifted through the cabin. Several passengers turned back to look at her.

Cora’s nerves did not respond. Satisfied, she returned her gaze to the port.

Rachael was sharp enough to find nonverbal ways to show her unhappiness. Cora told herself that her daughter knew damn well that playing a neurophon in an unsealed room on board any craft was against all flight rules. It would have been bad enough on board the liner-transport they had just left. In a shuttle, where the descent was a matter of delicate, critical adjustments by pilot and machine, it could have placed them in deep trouble. Rachael was fooling with her damnable toy only to irritate her mother, Cora knew. It would be so much better for her if she would simply disown the instrument. It occupied far too much of her study. time. Cora had tried to persuade her to abandon the device. She had tried only once. It had become an obsession with her daughter, and more than that, a surrogate larynx. Rachael knew she couldn’t battle her mother with words, so she would sometimes counter an argument by sulking and speaking only with the nerve music. Her daughter was turning into a tonal ventriloquist.

“That’s a neurophon, isn’t it? I thought I felt something picking at me a little while ago.” He smiled explosively, changing suddenly from nondescript to swarthily good-looking. “It’s a Chalcopyritic finish, Twelve Plank model, isn’t it? Made on Amropolus? With the Yhu Hive tuner?”

“That’s right.” Rachael brightened, turned in her seat. “Do you play?”

“No.” The man sounded apologetic. “Wish I did. I’m afraid my musical abilities are pretty nonexistent. But I know enough to be able to appreciate a skilled performer when I hear one. However briefly.” Again the lustrous grin.

“Tell me,” he said, shifting in his seat as they skipped a light bump in the atmosphere, “on directional projections, can you change keys and limbs simultaneously?”

“Sometimes,” She sounded enthusiastic. Cora stared resolutely out the port. “It’s hard, though, when you’re concentrating on the music and trying to produce the matching neurologic responses in your audience. It’s so difficult just to execute those properly, without trying to worry about physiological orientation, too. There’s so damn much to concentrate on.”

“I know.”

“Would you like me to play something for you now, maybe?” She swung the lyre-shaped instrument into playing position, her left hand caressing the strings, the right poised over the power controls and projector sensors. “In spite of what my mother says, I don’t think the pilot would mind.”

“It’s not a question of the pilot’s minding,” he said. thoughtfully. “I know you can keep the level down. But it wouldn’t be courteous to our fellow passengers. They might not all be music lovers. Besides,” and he smiled slightly again, “you might accidentally put out the lights, or drop the temperature thirty degrees.”

“All right. But when we get down, if you don’t disappear on me too fast, I promise I’ll play something for you. Tell me,” she went on excitedly, leaning farther into the aisle, “do you know anything about the new cerebral excluder? That’s the one that’s supposed to allow you to add another forty watts’ neuronic power.”

“I’ve heard of it,” he admitted pleasantly. “They say that it can …”

They rambled on enthusiastically, the discussion shifting from matters musical to the latest developments in instrumental electronics.

It was all somewhat beyond Cora. A top-flight neurophon player had to be musician, physicist, and physcist.

She stole another glance at Merced. He was listening quietly while Rachael expounded on the virtues of Amropolous-made neurophons as opposed to those manufactured on Willow-Wane. He had the look of a fisherman returning home, or perhaps a financial expert shipped out by an investment firm to explore the earnings of one or two of its floating farms. His skin was properly dark, but his facial features and small bone structure did not jibe with those of the dominant Polynesian-descended settlers of the water world. He was an ofi-worlder for sure.

They were preparing to leave the pier when she felt a gentle tingle in her lower legs. The tingle traveled up her thighs, ran like an acrobatic arachnid up her spine. Simultaneously a plaintive melody sounded in her ears, counterpointing the delicate rippling active inside her.

Apparently the subdued beauty was inspiring Rachael. Her daughter’s hands caressed the neurophon. One strummed the dual sets of circular strings that lay in the center of the instrument, the other fluttered over the contact controls set in the instrument’s handle and base. The coupling of aural music with the subsonic vibrations aflecting her skin and nerves produced a relaxing sensation throughout Cora’s body, as if she had just spent an hour beneath a fine-spray shower.

Merced appeared similarly affected, but Mataroreva’s reaction was quite difierent. The smile vanished from his face and he turned so abruptly he almost knocked Cora down.

“What’s the matter?” She tried to make the wide grin return. “I’m no music lover myself, but …”

“It’s not that.” He was looking nervously beyond her. “It has nothing to do with the music. I like the music and the neuronics. It’s just that … I think she’d better stop.” He was standing on the edge of the pier, across from the shuttle, staring down into the muted crystalline water. Elongated bands of light, reflections of the sun on water ripples, flashed up at him.

Rachael paused when he made a quieting gesture in her direction. “But you said you liked it,” she protested. “I can play something else if you want.”

“Just turn off the dendritic resonators.”

“Not again.” She petulantly ran her hand across a long series of contacts. Cora felt something combing her nerves. “I keep trying to explain it’s all of one piece, the aural and the neuronics. If I can’t conjoin them properly, I might as well give it up and take up the violin.”

“Just for now,” Mataroreva said.

Merced was also staring over the side of the pier. “I do believe there is something under the sand.”

Rachael ignored them both, her hands flicking angrily over the neurophon’s controls, generating a last discordant dual projection before shutting the instrument off.

Cora’s nerves jumped a little under the sharp stimulation. Then she discovered herself bewilderedly stumbling backward. Seawater geysered in front of her. Draped by the water like a maiden in a blue-green suit was a four-meter-high orange body, flattened like a flounder’s and encrusted with rough protrusions like a chunk of pumice. Several thick pink pseudopods waved at the air. Cora did not see any eyes but received the distinct impression that the creature perceived her clearly.

Mataroreva fell flat. From his cluttered equipment belt he withdrew a very compact beamer. The underwater weapon functioned well on dry land; a beam of bright blue struck the apparition in its midsection, or what Cora assumed to be its midsection. She could see it a bit more clearly now. Only seconds had passed. It looked like a cross between an obese squid and a starfish with delusions of grandeur. The blue fire struck between a pair of tentacles, pierced clean through the orange flesh. One thick, bristly appendage slapped wetly on the pier, only centimeters from Cora’s ankles. The blue beam struck the creature again and it slid back into the water. It had not made a sound.

The big Polynesian gestured toward Rachael. The woman who had joined them nodded understandingly. “She was playing that?”

“I—I’m sorry.” Rachael stared at them, dumbly. “I didn’t know. I mean, I know that a neurophon’s vibrations can affect certain animals. It’s just … the water here is so shallow, and we’re in a protected lagoon near human habitation and I—I didn’t see …”

From CACHALOT by Alan Dean Foster (1980)

Music Based Civilization


(ed note: The following events happen to the Third Men, the third human species. They arose about forty million years after our species became extinct.)

Industrialism, however, was never more than a digression, a lengthy and disastrous irrelevance in the life of this species. There were other digressions. There were for instance cultures, enduring sometimes for several thousand years, which were predominantly musical. This could never have occurred among the First Men; but, as was said, the third species was peculiarly developed in hearing, and in emotional sensitivity to sound and rhythm. Consequently, just as the First Men at their height were led into the wilderness by an irrational obsession with mechanical contrivances, just as the Third Men themselves were many times undone by their own interest in biological control, so, now and again, it was their musical gift that hypnotized them. Of these predominantly musical cultures the most remarkable was one in which music and religion combined to form a tyranny no less rigid than that of religion and science in the remote past. It is worth while to dwell on one of these episodes for a few moments.

The Third Men were very subject to a craving for personal immortality. Their lives were brief, their love of life intense. It seemed to them a tragic flaw in the nature of existence that the melody of the individual life must either fade into a dreary senility or be cut short, never to be repeated. Now music had a special significance for this race. So intense was their experience of it, that they were ready to regard it as in some manner the underlying reality of all things. In leisure hours, snatched from a toilful and often tragic life, groups of peasants would seek to conjure about them by song or pipe or viol a universe more beautiful, more real, than that of daily labour. Concentrating their sensitive hearing upon the inexhaustible diversity of tone and rhythm, they would seem to themselves to be possessed by the living presence of music, and to be transported thereby into a lovelier world. No wonder they believed that every melody was a spirit, leading a life of its own within the universe of music. No wonder they imagined that a symphony or chorus was itself a single spirit inhering in all its members. No wonder it seemed to them that when men and women listened to great music, the barriers of their individuality were broken down, so that they became one soul through communion with the music.

The prophet was born in a highland village where the native faith in music was intense, though quite unformulated. In time he learnt to raise his peasant audiences to the most extravagant joy and the most delicious sorrow. Then at last he began to think, and to expound his thoughts with the authority of a great bard. Easily he persuaded men that music was the reality, and all else illusion, that the living spirit of the universe was pure music, and that each individual animal and man, though he had a body that must die and vanish for ever, had also a soul that was music and eternal. A melody, he said, is the most fleeting of things. It happens and ceases. The great silence devours it, and seemingly annihilates it. Passage is essential to its being. Yet though for a melody, to halt is to die a violent death, all music, the prophet affirmed, has also eternal life. After silence it may occur again, with all its freshness and aliveness. Time cannot age it; for its home is in a country outside time. And that country, thus the young musician earnestly preached, is also the home land of every man and woman, nay of every living thing that has any gift of music. Those who seek immortality, must strive to waken their tranced souls into melody and harmony. And according to their degree of musical originality and proficiency will be their standing in the eternal life.

The doctrine, and the impassioned melodies of the prophet, spread like fire. Instrumental and vocal music sounded from every pasture and corn plot. The government tried to suppress it, partly because it was thought to interfere with agricultural productivity, largely because its passionate significance reverberated even in the hearts of courtly ladies, and threatened to undo the refinement of centuries. Nay, the social order itself began to crumble. For many began openly to declare that what mattered was not aristocratic birth, nor even proficiency in the time-honoured musical forms (so much prized by the leisured), but the gift of spontaneous emotional expression in rhythm and harmony. Persecution strengthened the new faith with a glorious company of martyrs who, it was affirmed, sang triumphantly even in the flames.

One day the sacred monarch himself, hitherto a prisoner within the conventions, declared half sincerely, half by policy, that he was converted to his people's faith. Bureaucracy gave place to an enlightened dictatorship, the monarch assumed the title of Supreme Melody, and the whole social order was re-fashioned, more to the taste of the peasants. The subtle prince, backed by the crusading zeal of his people, and favoured by the rapid spontaneous spread of the faith in all lands, conquered the whole world, and founded the Universal Church of Harmony. The prophet himself, meanwhile, dismayed by his own too facile success, had retired into the mountains to perfect his art under the influence of their great quiet, or the music of wind, thunder and waterfall. Presently, however, the silence of the fells was shattered by the blare of military bands and ecclesiastical choirs, which the emperor had sent to salute him and conduct him to the metropolis. He was secured, though not without a scrimmage, and lodged in the High Temple of Music. There he was kept a prisoner, dubbed God's Big Noise, and used by the world-government as an oracle needing interpretation. In a few years the official music of the temple, and of deputations from all over the world, drove him into raving madness; in which state he was the more useful to the authorities.

Thus was founded the Holy Empire of Music, which gave order and purpose to the species for a thousand years. The sayings of the prophet, interpreted by a series of able rulers, became the foundation of a great system of law which gradually supplanted all local codes by virtue of its divine authority. Its root was madness; but its final expression was intricate common sense, decorated with harmless and precious flowers of folly. Throughout, the individual was wisely, but tacitly, regarded as a biological organism having definite needs or rights and definite social obligations; but the language in which this principle was expressed and elaborated was a jargon based on the fiction that every human being was a melody, demanding completion within a greater musical theme of society.

Toward the close of this millennium of order a schism occurred among the devout. A new and fervent sect declared that the true spirit of the musical religion had been stifled by ecclesiasticism. The founder of the religion had preached salvation by individual musical experience, by an intensely emotional communion with the Divine Music. But little by little, so it was said, the church had lost sight of this central truth, and had substituted a barren interest in the objective forms and principles of melody and counterpoint. Salvation, in the official view, was not to be had by subjective experience, but by keeping the rules of an obscure musical technique. And what was this technique? Instead of making the social order a practical expression of the divine law of music, churchmen and statesmen had misinterpreted these divine laws to suit mere social convenience, until the true spirit of music had been lost. Meanwhile on the other side a counter-revival took place. The self-centred and soul-saving mood of the rebels was ridiculed. Men were urged to care rather for the divine and exquisitely ordered forms of music itself than for their own emotion.

It was amongst the rebel peoples that the biological interest of the race, hitherto subordinate, came into its own. Mating, at least among the more devout sort of women, began to be influenced by the desire to have children who should be of outstanding musical brilliance and sensitivity. Biological sciences were rudimentary, but the general principle of selective breeding was known. Within a century this policy of breeding for music, or breeding "soul," developed from a private idiosyncrasy into a racial obsession. It was so far successful that after a while a new type became common, and thrived upon the approbation and devotion of ordinary persons. These new beings were indeed extravagantly sensitive to music, so much so that the song of a sky-lark caused them serious torture by its banality, and in response to any human music of the kind which they approved, they invariably fell into a trance. Under the stimulus of music which was not to their taste they were apt to run amok and murder the performers.

We need not pause to trace the stages by which an infatuated race gradually submitted itself to the whims of these creatures of human folly, until for a brief period they became the tyrannical ruling caste of a musical theocracy. Nor need we observe how they reduced society to chaos; and how at length an age of confusion and murder brought mankind once more to its senses, but also into so bitter a disillusionment that the effort to re-orientate the whole direction of its endeavour lacked determination. Civilization fell to pieces and was not rebuilt till after the race had lain fallow for some thousands of years.

So ended perhaps the most pathetic of racial delusions. Born of a genuine and potent aesthetic experience, it retained a certain crazy nobility even to the end.

From LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapeldon (1930)

Within the humming, echoing cave of theArgo, it was becoming more and more difficult to believe that any other world existed, particularly during the long weeks while the great hull was riding the Standing Wave, a universe in itself. But regularly there came through that closed universe the undeniable, uniformly shaped pips of the Hegemony's detection beams, reminding the Argo's crew that though they could see nothing of the galaxy while they were in transit, the Heart Stars were watching them constantly.

Then the Argo burst once again out of its self-made, invisible cocoon, and beneath it rolled a world of green hills and cloud-dappled blue skies so like the Earth that Jack felt an acute pang of homesickness. Surely this planet, so calm, so pastoral, so domesticated, could not present any unpleasant surprises. That just wouldn't be fair.

But it did. Earth-like the planet was, geophysically, but its people had never heard of the Earth and had no intention of living like Earthmen. The life that they lived in the gigantic stone temples they had built upon pylons in the middle of the sea was centred in music, which in turn was based upon the ceaseless rolling of the broad combers of the waves. They vaguely understood that the gig was something like the small, high-pooped, lateen-sailed carracks with their dragon's-head forecastles in which they cruised their ocean, but they looked with horror out of their frog-like eyes upon the star travellers, and were obviously happy to be rid of them. They did not fit anywhere into the completely ritualized life of this culture, where even the smallest act or gesture was ceremonial as well as functional and had its appropriate five-note melody. The last thing Jack and Sandbag heard as they quitted that world was a cacophonous skirling of pipes and horns, at once both mournful and aggressive, as though the people were hoping to blow them off the face of the planet.

Yet the world from which these constant chants and pipings arose was immensely wealthy, and immensely powerful. It was the first Heart Star planet that they had seen that was impressive enough, despite its peculiarities, to seem to merit full membership in a union as all-embracing as the Hegemony of Malis.

'All the same,' Sandbag said, 'if I ever get to be Earth's ambassador to that crew, the first thing I'm going to do is turn off my hearing aid.'

From MISSION TO THE HEART STARS by James Blish (1965)

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is NTR First Lunar Outpost

This week's featured addition is Fusion Powered Human Transport to Mars

This week's featured addition is Aurora CDF Mars Mission

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon