Monday, November 22, 2010

How Science Fiction is Like Jazz

A couple weeks ago, Hannah Bowman posted an essay about improvisation in music and how it relates to pantsing manuscripts*. It's a good metaphor and definitely worth checking out, but the reason I mention it is that Hannah inspired me to revisit my own music-writing analogy and I wanted to give context.

It occurred to me a while back that two great, influential, highly creative forms of expression arose at about the same time in the 20th century—jazz and science fiction. They both took off rapidly, though I think one's much cooler than the other these days from a general cultural standpoint. Personally, I love them equally.

The first jazz recordings are Dixieland, from 1917, but Dixie was around for at least a decade or so before that. It's a very raw form of jazz, with every instrument playing a different melody, and it was criticized then (and now) for being a lot of noise. Of course, Dixieland and jazz didn't come out of a vacuum. There's evidence that cakewalk music, blues and proto-blues, ragtime, New Orleans funeral bands, and some other types of music I'm forgetting and am too lazy to look up, all contributed to it.

Unlike jazz, science fiction started in the middle of the 19th century with Verne and Wells and Doyle, but again there were precursors. Lots of 'em. In some ways, the genre sprang up fully formed with its creative applications and extrapolations of technology, its tropes, its social commentary and escapism, but the early work is slower, more Victorian, and is thus somewhat heavy-handed and purple. The early SF writers were figuring it out as they went along, just as the Dixieland bands were.

And then the 1920s hit, with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, the Chicago jazz club scene, and hot jazz. Jazz was loudly slammed in the media (still just a lot of noise) but it was beginning to be recognized and cool. We start to get more definite melodies and lead instruments. We start to get vocals and scat singing. Jazz becomes much more recognizable, and people start to dance to it.

At the same time, we began to see pulp magazines and science fiction began to take a recognizable shape. There began to be a little more variation in the stories told, a little more exploration and genuine science. Sci-fi readership began to grow.

From the late '20s through to the early '40s, the dance bands really, really came into the fore, thanks in large part to the Great Depression. They were one of the major forms of entertainment for the masses, with radio shows, touring bands, and dance halls in every major city. Hot jazz had become swing. There was much more formula and structure, with every song following the pattern of melody-secondary melody-solos-melody. Even the solos were scripted. And for the first time, a lot of the musicians were white and the music was reaching a white audience. (Also, the tunes are just plain fun.)

As Wikipedia says: "In the 1920s and 30s writers entirely unconnected with science fiction were exploring new ways of telling a story and new ways of treating time, space and experience in the narrative form." More people were playing with the ideas, seeing what was possible. The big name authors (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl…) began to take the stage, just as big name musicians began to rise in the swing bands (Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie). Science fiction fandom arose.

After the swing era, jazz started fragmenting. Bebop was the first "subgenre" to spin off. It was meant to be listened to, not danced to, and was faster, more complicated, and more challenging for the musicians and audience. Then the jazz singers largely shifted into a) movie musicals b) pop songs c) both. And then a bunch of crazy musicians like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley showed up, writing horrible music that was "noise" and degenerate and was going to poison the minds of children.**

Then over a 40-year period came modal jazz, free jazz, Latin jazz, post bop, soul jazz, jazz fusion, jazz funk, and experimental jazz. This is about where the timelines of jazz and SF start deviating, because science fiction's expansion into multiple subgenres doesn't line up neatly with the jazz subgenres. And jazz is almost entirely intellectual these days, while science fiction is still growing in popularity. I won't be surprised if there's a bebop-like backlash to that popularity, because there is already a faction of people claiming there isn't enough science and drive for social change in science fiction and SF writers need to return to their pulp roots.*** Cyberpunk was like that when it first appeared, but we're due for another game-changer. It's been 30 years.

Personally, I'm a huge swing fan and a great believer in science fiction as entertainment first, intellectual second. I don't mind thinking about what I read, but the science and commentary had better support the story or form the background for it. But I also like the freneticness of bebop and cyberpunk, the simplicity of hot jazz and Golden Age, the charm of Dixieland and Victorian SF. I have no jazz comparisons for space opera or military SF, but on occasion I like those too.

How does the analogy hold up in your eyes? Are there similarities I've missed? Differences? And which types of jazz and SF do you like?

* a.k.a. writing without much of a plot outline
** Also, jive dancing is a direct descendant of swing dancing.
*** Okay, the science thing might be true. Depends on how you define hard SF, I think.

1 comment:

Elena said...

Very, very interesting, and a different way of looking at things.