Saturday, December 25, 2004


Ian MacLeod & Richard Thompson

Of the authors I've "discovered" in my recent re-entry into sf, Ian MacLeod is one of my favorites. Richard Thompson is my favorite musician. There's a lot in common between the work of these two.

I illustrate this here with reference to a specific IM novella, "New Light on the Drake Equation" (first published at online SciFiction in 2001, in the collection Breathmoss, and in at least one best sf of the year anthology) and a specific RT song, "Beeswing" (orginally on 1994's Mirror Blue, also on the Action Packed compilation; the Amazon links enable you to listen to a sample, or you could go to iTunes or similar. If you'd like a description of RT before going to check him out, I think that the best I can do is "folk-rock singer-songwriter-guitarist").

Both "Drake Equation" and "Beeswing" have a male protagonist, who is a less vivid character than the female lead, his former lover. "Drake Equation" is about Tom Kelly, a scientist who is engaged in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) after the rest of the world has withdrawn interest and funding. The woman is Terr, who was a restless graduate student when Tom first met her.

Terr had already worked her way through half a dozen courses, and had grown bored with all of them... she fluttered from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, flower to flower, sipping its nectar, then once again spreading her wings and wafting off to some other faculty.
At first, "spreading her wings" is a metaphor. But it becomes literally true, because the future in which IM sets his story is a "new world of extreme sports, where, if you wanted to do something that your body wasn't up to, you simply had your body changed." Terr does indeed have her body augmented with wings.

The woman in "Beeswing" is just as restless. When the narrator suggested they settle down, she reacted with horror, telling him that "you shan't own me." The couple split up and lose touch. This is how the song ends:

And they say her flower is faded now
Hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay
For the chains you refuse
She was a rare thing
Fine as a Beeswing
And I miss her more than ever words could say
If I could just taste
All of her wildness now
If I could hold her in my arms today
Then I wouldn't want her any other way.
Self-destruction and drinking are prominent in that quote, and in the song in general. They are also important in the story, which opens with Tom finishing off last night's wine and chasing it with absinthe before driving from his home - a wooden hut on a French mountain - to town.

Of all the similarities between the novella and the song, the most important to me is the tone of melancholy, and how beautifully it is expressed. I think that this comes across in the quote from the song, as much song lyrics can work separated from their music. I won't quote the story to illustrate this, in part because the tone comes from the whole novella rather than from any one passage, and in part because I'm writing a lot more than I thought I would when I started.

I don't want to overstate the similarities between IM's story and RT's song. I won't try to make anything of the title "New Light on the Drake Equation," and how the word light appears in the title of two of Thompson's most important albums, and how Richard played on some of Nick Drake's songs (e.g., electric guitar on "Time Has Told Me").

No, the Drake and the Bee are different creatures. The former is told in the third person, the latter in the first person. Drake is mainly about the male lead, Bee mainly about the female. IM doesn't play lovely acoustic guitar (well, he may do for all I know, but I can't hear it when I read Drake), while RT certainly does. Bee doesn't have, and doesn't strive for, the very strong sense of place that Drake has. While each of Drake and Bee gives a very clear picture of the time in which it's set, they are set in the future and the past respectively. But I hope I've shown that, despite these differences, the similarities are striking.

Since this is an sf blog making one of its occasional links to music, the "typical reader" is more likely to be familiar with Ian MacLeod than with Richard Thompson. Said reader might be interested in some Richard Thompson recommendations. The 3-cd boxed set, Watching the Dark, is excellent. If you're put off by its price, then you could wander across to iTunes and buy in much smaller quantities.

To be specific, how about a song using metaphor to comment on precarious relationships? That's how I'd describe at least two RT songs, and these two happen to be among my favorites. Both are from the days of Richard and Linda Thompson. (They were formerly partners in music and in marriage.) One is Wall of Death, with Richard singing lead and playing electric guitar. The other is The Great Valerio, with Linda singing lead and Richard playing acoustic. If you want more recent RT, then I'd recommend a live track or two (from iTunes or from RT's web site).

In closing, though, I'll mention Watching the Dark again. It's not only a fine selection of RT's work; it's what Tom Kelly is doing when we leave him, SETI-obsessed in his hut, at the end of "New Light on the Drake Equation."

ps No I didn't spend Christmas day writing this. I made a minor edit, and changed the date in order to push it to the top, above my MetaBlog ramblings of yesterday pm.


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