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So, pell-mell all day yesterday, and then rushing off to a dinner party among writerly friends, wherein the discussion came up of very short stories. The sort that are told in strophic form, poetry, song, verse, haiku. The example offered to me was (six words):

Baby shoes
For sale
Never used.

It's a bit extreme, but there is a whole story in there if you unpack it. In response, I mentioned (tip of the typepad to robin_hobb) "Sylvia's Mother" by Dr. Hook (and written by Shel Silverstein) as a good example of a song that tells a complete short story in the sparse use of words. We discussed the story of the song and how the intentions of the mother and the young suitor come out in what and how they say, while the fee-demands of the telephone company close off any window for the young man's (probably muddied) intended life with Sylvia. If you don't know the song, here it is:

Doctor Hook—Sylvia's Mother:

But when it comes to speculative fiction, there's a wealth out there, both for good and for bad (Leonard Nimoy is a champion of the latter, and was even earning full, professional, buffonisations of his oeuvres even as early as 1972).

Thinking back to a podcast I just heard last month, featuring time_shark and F.J. Bergmann from Star*Line, Bergmann made the point that I'd never thought of about speculative fiction poetry, which is the need for narrative. Not complete narrative, but there must be the element of a narrative. I'm not 100% convinced of the point, since a haiku about light playing on the event horizon of a city-dome is still speculative fiction poetry, but there is something interesting that happens when you move from a song with speculative elements (for e.g. Florence + the Machine's "Howl", David Bowie's "Cygnet Committee", Gotye's "Eyes Wide Open", the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star") into something complete, not a Xanadu-like "fragment".

So, thinking of these sorts of song that are complete stories in themselves, with a speculative fiction flavour, I realize these are some of the songs that are most memorable for me, that I return to again and again. There are several I really like. Here's five that immediately come to mind for me:

Brian Eno—The Fat Lady of Limbourg:

Florence + the Machine—Bird Song:

David Bowie—The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud:


Suzanne Vega—The Queen and the Soldier:

How about you?


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 2nd, 2012 12:51 pm (UTC)
I'm going to enjoy listening to these.

I'm not quite sure of the parameters of what you're thinking of, though. I mean, ballads all tell stories. I listen to tons of those. A lot of those have speculative elements--ghosts and otherworldly creatures (not all, though; plenty just have murderous lovers). And a lot of metal songs seem story oriented--in fact, the more I think of it, the more it seems to me that *lots* of songs have story elements. Is it the speculative element you're thinking of in particular? Or songs that are particularly coherent in their storytelling?

The song I happened to be listening to when I came to your entry might work: "Damaris" by Patrick Wolfe.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:13 pm (UTC)
Well, I hadn't meant to lay down ground rules, but now that I think of it, I was following two of them: songs that are 1) SFF, meaning that it's consciously speculative fiction of the Science Fiction & Fantasy type, so that rules out ballads of the generic ghostly variety based in traditional religious culture, and 2) Complete stories, with your own definition of what constitutes "complete".
Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:24 pm (UTC)
So, to take an obvious example, something like "Space Oddity"?

In light of the parameters, I don't think "Damaris" fits--it's more of a horror story/traditional haunting story.

I'll think some more.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:21 pm (UTC)
I see your point with Damaris, but I'd call that a fragment. A story can be drawn out of it, like the six-word example at the top of the post, but it's more a celebration (for lack of a better word) of a kind of relationship between the singer and the subject. The focus is not the tale; the tale is the setting for the focus, which is raw emotion. Make sense?
Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:25 pm (UTC)
Yes, it does, and I agree--it hasn't actually worked out a whole story.
Jun. 2nd, 2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
Funny. Before I clicked to open the cut, "The Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud" was top of my list. I had a blog post about Bowie as the most SFnal of all singers a few years ago. Also, have to include almost every song on "The Man Who Sold the World" album.
Jun. 3rd, 2012 09:35 am (UTC)
Not full stories, though. Good album. I listened to it obsessively my last couple of years in college.

Do you know Eno? I think you'd like Eno. "Another Green World", "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy".
Jun. 3rd, 2012 09:50 am (UTC)
Funnily enough, I don't know Eno all that well. I'll check out those songs when I get a minute...
Jun. 3rd, 2012 09:54 am (UTC)
They're albums. He also does some great duo albums with other musicians. John Cale and he on "Wrong Way Up" is a little-known great.

Do you have a link to your Bowie SFnal blog entry?
Jun. 3rd, 2012 10:00 am (UTC)
Hmmm.... I found the post and it's not as I remembered it: only a statement rather than an actual exploration. Curse you, you rosy lenses!
Jun. 3rd, 2012 10:05 am (UTC)
Curses indeed. The edition of the "Hunky Dory" album that I eventually bought from iTunes (having worn the ferrous oxide off the cassette tape somewhere in the last millennium), has an unreleased track "Bombers" that's worth *ahem* tracking down.

"Die said the General; 'Cobbler' said the man. So the Pentagon sent a cable and the Queen a telegram..."
Jun. 3rd, 2012 10:06 am (UTC)
Wow, I thought I knew every Bowie song... Never heard of Bomber...
Jun. 5th, 2012 06:56 am (UTC)
Ah, thanks for that! I realized on hearing the chorus that I had heard it before, although I don't know when. Really good song :)
Jun. 5th, 2012 08:29 am (UTC)
Cozy Catastrophe.
Jun. 7th, 2012 10:14 am (UTC)
Oh, and look here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/05/154323755/old-music-tuesday-ziggy-stardust-turns-40

Gosh. Going to have to contribute to the Davie Jones retirement fund.
Jun. 7th, 2012 10:20 am (UTC)
Nice article. I've bought so many copies of this over the years already... but... but...
Jun. 2nd, 2012 10:15 pm (UTC)
How about James Taylor's Frozen Man?

Would Klaatu's 'Sub Rosa Subway' qualify as steampunk?
Jun. 3rd, 2012 09:52 am (UTC)
Kewl. I'd not heard either of those before. Which is strange, because JT was very popular among the expats in Pakistan. Klaatu sounds like a lot of fun. I'm going to have to go a-sampling.

With a name like Klaatu, though, I don't think any song they make could be anything OTHER than SFnal, could it :)
Jun. 3rd, 2012 11:52 am (UTC)
They did one or two that aren't especially SFnal, like "Routine Day." but yeah.

A college friend introduced me to their work; a fine band from Toronto, who unfairly suffered for not being The Beatles - apparently when their first album was released, a rumour got started that the Beatles had reunited under a new name; when this was squelched, a bunch of listeners flounced off in disappointment.
Jun. 3rd, 2012 12:01 pm (UTC)
Unfair flouncing!
Jun. 3rd, 2012 12:13 am (UTC)
Have to admit, '39 was the one that sprang to my mind. (The last line always gives me goosebumps.)
Jun. 3rd, 2012 09:56 am (UTC)
Oyez. I love that line.
Jun. 3rd, 2012 10:36 am (UTC)
I've used the "Baby shoes" story in writing classes for decades, a complete story in six words with characters and pathos. The person who told it to me said it was written by Hemmingway, but I'm pretty sure that's a myth simply because it's short and uses small words.
Jun. 3rd, 2012 11:45 am (UTC)
Yes, I couldn't imagine that coming from Hemingway. I'd imagine he'd be more

Dawn shows
story's crap.
Rum's gone.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )