Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 1

OK, so here’s the conceit of the day, in a nutshell:

“Science fiction is to the world of fiction writing as rock music is to the world of music.”

This is something I’ve been kicking around as an idea for some time. There has been a spate of “the state of the genre” blogging over the last week or so (indeed, many more items than just the two Lou Anders pieces linked there), and the need to get this idea down in words on a screen crystallised while I was commenting on a post over at Meme Therapy that discusses the thorny “SF gets no respect from the mainstream” issue.

I’m not sure how people are going to take this, really. I hope people take it as it’s meant — in that I see similarities in the interactions of these two subcultures with the cultural world around them, and in their internal dynamics. I am not implying that all SF fans are rock music fans, or vice versa, and nor do I believe that that should be the case. I just wanted to draw some parallels between two subcultures that I happen to be a habitué of, and whose similarities have (to me at least) always been apparent. It is not intended to be deadly serious either, but I think there are some interesting points to be made.

The central prop of this idea is that both SF and rock music are ghettoised by the larger fields of artistic endeavour around them. The right-and-wrong (and cause-and-effect) of this will be discussed further on; for the moment, let’s just examine that mainstay.

SF is criticised by not just the “serious literature” lobby, but also readers of popular fiction (of which it is definitely a subgenre, much as ‘literature’ can be considered to be). The main thrust of the criticism depends on whence it arrives: the literati accuse SF of being too spectacular (and speculative), and concerned with events that have nothing to do with people in the real world; popular fiction readers simply dismiss it as being crass, tacky, overblown, confusing or just plain silly.

Rock music is likewise subject to criticism by “serious musicians” (e.g. classical enthusiasts) and by fans of popular music (of which it is, again, definitely a subgenre, as is classical in some ways). The musos accuse rock music of being sensationalist, and being based on an aesthetic of style-over-substance. Pop music fans find it visually and aurally unappealing, for reasons that often cannot be stated in words — it just simply doesn’t sound like music to them, and the subcultural dresscodes are intimidating or laughable (except in certain circumstances – see later).

The main advantage of this comparison being applied to SF is to discuss the subjectivity of the term “music” (and there is some good Wikipedia blarney available on this). Anyone who has listened to, for example, Asian music based on different frameworks of musical theory (more notes per scale, tonal differences), or fringe industrial or techno music forms, will be aware that it can take a while before one really starts to “get” it. Likewise, someone who has always listened to popular music forms usually has to acclimatise to the different structures, conventions and theories of classical music, and vice versa. From a psychological point of view, when someone declares that something they are listening to isn’t proper music, then what they mean is that it doesn’t fit in the framework of what they consider “music” to mean, as a definition. Likewise, they will defend things that fit within that definition against the same criticism from someone else. This seems to me rather similar to the hackneyed but still prevalent (and largely inescapable) definition of SF as “what I point at and describe as SF”. Hold that thought.

Enough psychology for now — let’s get back to cultural similitude. Both rock music and SF (and indeed most other genres of all arts and artforms) have subgenres, and there is a complex relativistic hierarchy between said subgenres that is largely defined by the people who comprise them. However (and this is the important part) people outside the overall genre do not make these distinctions. To an outsider, all SF is just SF (or “sci-fi”, more usually), regardless of whether its fans consider it to be hard SF, cyberpunk, space opera, mundane SF or whatever. A fan of Alastair Reynolds would probably argue for hours with a Kevin J. Anderson fan about the vast gulf of difference between their works. A non-fan would dismiss them both — “set in space, set in the future; they’re just sci-fi.”

Likewise, rock music is nowadays comprised of a huge number of fractional subgenres which, in the eyes of their fans, are as different as chalk and cheese. A Blink-182 listener and a fan of Tool or A Perfect Circle would doubtless engage in a shouting match over how much each other’s favourite band totally sucked. A non-fan would just hear two bands based on “guitars and shouting”, and file them in the “Rock music — avoid listening” box.

(This is not to say that the examples I have used would always be at odds; there are doubtless SF readers who like both Reynolds and Anderson, as there are probably people with both Tool and Blink on their iPods. These distinctions are drawn from generalisations, and are being used for illustrative purposes only.)

So, to sum up, the view from inside the ghetto fence of a genre is far more pluralist than the view from outside — and this is a psychological truism that (regrettably) extends far outside the appreciation of cultural content, as current world events demonstrate more obviously than I could wish for.

But there are more similarities in the next layer of the cultural onion, which is much like the metaphorical onion mentioned by C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle – one where each successive layer is larger and more complex than the last, despite being contained by it. So, as Lewis put it in that work, let us “go further up, go further in”.

But let us do it tomorrow. This is going to be at least a three-part rant – I hope you’ll join me for the continuation. Read part 2.

8 thoughts on “Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 1”

  1. True. The same generalization of a fractal reality can be observed regarding classical music: uninitiates think of Mozart and Wagner as all the same, while an officionado can easily hear the difference between Corelli and Geminiani. I’m sure the same principle applies to other musical and literary genres as well. Does someone unversed (sorry) in poetry hear Donne and T.S. Eliot as the same jumble of incomprehensible phrases?

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