"Miami 2017": On Commitment, Worldbuilding, and the Science Fiction Pop Song

This week I read a gently speculative novel set in the near-ish future, dealing with space tourism and global warming. Its science fictional elements weren’t far removed from our world, so it felt less defined by its SFF status than by its form—it was told in emails, all from one correspondent to another. The second character does write back, but his replies are only implied; we never get to see them.

I’m being coy about the book’s title—though I’m sure you could find it easily from these clues, if you cared too—because I found it bewilderingly difficult to get into, but I’m not out to give a bad review so much as understand what kept me from connecting with it. For all I know, this novel is great, just not for me. Thinking about what made it so very not for me, I’ve decided it’s in large part the email form. It seems only half-committed to, as a conceit—there are large sections of most emails told in-scene, even including paragraph breaks for each line of dialogue. Many of the emails end with a huge revel and then a sudden, contrived sign-off—the way a traditionally formal novel would leave on a cliffhanger before section or chapter breaks, sure, but show me one person who has ever emailed that way.

All of which is to say, the book seemed to be desperate not to be epistolary; it was fighting its defining formal constraint at every turn. This was a huge distraction and by far the most memorable thing about the novel. I wondered if it was the genre that made things difficult—maybe even near-future, thinly speculative science fiction needs too much exposition and worldbuilding for fancy formal work? But of course that doesn’t hold water; I’m sure you’re thinking of a thousand counter-examples as you read this.

I wanted to share and think about the first few that came to my mind, just because I’ve found them inspirational this week. The most concept-driven, constrained form I could immediately think of in which to tell a science-fiction story was the science fiction pop song—a genre that’s surprisingly large, considering its challenges. To build and/or destroy a world in a few verses and a chorus? Forget it. David Bowie must surely be this subgenre’s patron saint, but here are a few of my favorites. (These are all three traumatic and/or apocalyptic songs, which is maybe creepy of me—it’s probably just that these are the easiest to identify as definitely SFF, and have the most interesting concepts behind them, since in order to earn destroying your world in a pop/folk song you have to do a pretty good job.)

First, "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" By Billy Joel. It feels like I’ve been defending Billy Joel for most of my life, and I’m prepared to keep at it. This was written during the 1970s when it looked like New York City was about to go bankrupt and was denied federal aid. Joel imagines a narrator in the distant future of 2017, telling the story of watching New York literally fall apart. It has the same literal, matter-of-fact Billy Joel lyrics that I guess you either love or hate; I think they’re a great fit for this kind of apocalyptic witness narrative, which really couldn’t be told any other way and retain its clarity.

This next song’s end-of-days is more hypothetical, or at least personal—the Mountain Goats’ “Hawaiian Feeling.” I’ve already written about this song, so I won’t say much more here. Just that it’s great and is the most hopeful version of an “aliens kill everyone” story you’re ever likely to hear.

Last of all, a song I always think of as an icon of worldbuilding (though it's worth noting that you don't have to look outside our actual world for many of its traumatic elements). Dan Bern’s “Mexican Vacation” is almost part of a speculative genre, a half-imagined folk music of the post-apocalypse, and implies its world in its form as much as in its lyrics. (It’s a sort of second or third cousin of filk, “official” science-fiction folk music, which I have tried to get into and have not succeeded in enjoying.) 

I suppose this post is mostly Goofus and Gallant, as I think about the distracting (to me) half-commitment of that novel to its governing conceit and, on the other hand, these songs that—whatever else you might say about them—dive fully into their concepts. I’d love to hear other recommendations, of songs or books or anything else great and/or inspiring. They don’t even have to be about the apocalypse.