Earlier this week I finished re-reading what might be my favorite Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, Soul Music. When I introduced you to Pratchett and Discworld I mentioned that each novel has its own theme. Nearly all the novels use the same groups of characters, but each revolves around a unique theme (and usually one of the character groups, although cross-over is frequent).
Soul Music is about “music with rocks in it” (in other words: rock music). It’s technically one of the “Death” novels (which is to say that the Discworld avatar of Death is the main character), but it prominently features the Wizards in supporting roles.
And Death’s grand-daughter, Susan. And the spirit of Buddy Holly.
Think of music as a living thing that exists on its own, a thing with life and will and the desire to be. In some sense, we only discover music. The notes existed long before the first one was ever struck. We only find them in the universe of possibilities.
[I wrote recently about how we can treat any text as a single number along an infinite number line. The same is true for any tune.]
Soul Music is Pratchett’s 16th Discworld novel, which places it in the latter part of the first half of the 39 extant tales. He wrote it in 1994, ten years before symptoms of his early-onset Alzheimer’s showed up. The point is, he wrote this story at the prime and peak of his writing powers and Discworld.
The entire novel is a fabulous read, but some parts were so tasty I bookmarked them so I could share them with you.
This novel suggests the universe began with a chord. A power chord. “The Listening Monks of the Ramtops have trained their hearing until they can tell the value of a playing card by listening to it”. The best among them say they hear some tiny sounds just before the chord. They say it sounds like someone counting, “One, Two, Three, Four.“
The very best of them say there’s even a fainter sound that comes before. That one sounds like, “One, Two.“
Soul Music also introduces another favorite bit (pun intended) of mine: the ant-powered “computer” (later named “Hex”) created by the young (nerdy) Wizards in the High Energy Magic (HEM) department. I think this is a brilliant creation. Pratchett has ants (lots of them) running around glass tubes, and that is the Discworld analog of bits running through computer wires.
Pratchett uses the idea of life metaphorically. Cities have life (which, incidentally, is the theme of the Discworld novel, Reaper Man). Ant hills and bee hives can be seen as single beings made of individual parts. Belief creates life on Discworld; Gods become real and alive if they are believed in.
“The universe danced toward life. Life was a remarkably common commodity. Anything sufficiently complicated seemed to get cut in for some, in the same way that anything massive enough got a generous helping of gravity. The universe had a definite tendency toward awareness. This suggested a certain subtle cruelty woven into the very fabric of spacetime.
“Perhaps even a music could be alive, if it was old enough. Life is a habit.
“People said: I can’t get that darn tune out of my head.
“Not just a beat, but a heartbeat.
“And anything alive wants to breed.”
That man can sure turn a phrase. Or a concept. The richness of his imagination, and the depth and power of his writing, make him my favorite science fiction author, bar none.
While Adams created a seminal work, a forever classic in the field, Pratchett is a much better writer even so. Pratchett is extraordinary! His books are deeper and more engaging and extremely sharp and cogent. At least that is my take.
Here’s another example of Pratchett’s skill with a phrase:
“Every note was sharp as a bell and as simple as sunlight—so that in the prism of the brain it broke up and flashed into a million colors.”
What an amazing and simple description of a beautiful tune. Music has great power to touch us; it always has. It reaches inside us to places only it can touch. It acts like an ink blot, and we see ourselves reflected by it.
One of the fun parts of reading Soul Music is picking out the music references.
Our hero’s name is Imp Y Celyn. We learn that Y Celyn is a regional family name that refers to a leafy bush, like holly. We also learn that Imp means a new shoot or bud.
I’ll let you put two and two together.
Some of the dialog consists of phrases from song lyrics. As an easy example, one character exclaims, “Hah! That’ll be the day.”
Of all the music references, one (for me) brings down the house. Pratchett sets it up early. A character (the Librarian at the Wizards’ University) becomes “infected” with the “music with rocks in it” meme and goes off to make… something. For many chapters there are hints of things gone missing and furious activity.
When we finally meet his creation, although Pratchett never gives it a name, we recognize it instantly as one of the most famous rock album covers ever. How Pratchett puts it together, how he describes it, and what happens next, is sheer delight. (And it’s one of my favorite rock albums.)
Appropriately, I’ll leave you today with some music. The first one is a new favorite of a tune that’s been around a while. I like the remake better than the original. I like the arrangement, I like the bass track, I like the vocals, I like the rhythm track. I just plain love this rendition. Kinda cool words, too:
Here’s a little bonus treat:
Music with rocks in it, sex and baseball! Can’t beat that!!