Backstory: The Music Teacher

It went “zip” when it moved
and “bop” when it stopped.
“Whirrrrr” when it stood still
I never knew just what it was
and I guess I never will.
– Tom Paxton

The July 2013 issue of Stupefying Stories includes “The Music Teacher”, my story about an unfortunate musician in possession of a maddening object. The story started as a challenge to my sci-fi peers over their use of an implausible plot device, but as I progressed, I found a deeper theme.

The Music Teacher is now available as part of my collection of stories titled “Humanity By Proxy and Other Stories.”

The Language Gap

My initial inspiration for writing the story came from Star Trek and other space operas. I’ve always found it maddening when Our Hero beams over to an alien spaceship, sits down at the controls, and after a minutes worth of fiddling restarts the main power.

Seriously? An alien device is going to be, well, alien. If you – a real person (vs a fictional character in a televised space opera) – were to drop into aforementioned space ship, you wouldn’t recognize the language used by the ship. You wouldn’t recognize the user interface icons. You’re not going to recognize the purpose of anything on the ship. You’re certainly not going to just flip a switch and power up.

I voiced this discrepancy in The Music Teacher during dialog between two of the characters; Beth and Eric. Here’s the meat of their conversation…

“I’ve wondered if it’s trying to do something we don’t have words for,” Beth continued. “Like if Ben Franklin somehow found a cellphone. It wouldn’t work like a phone because there wouldn’t be cell towers to support it. Then if he could figure out how to make it do anything, it would probably play Tetris, but Franklin wouldn’t understand what it was doing because he wouldn’t understood the rules. Then it would run out of batteries and he’d never know what it was really for. It makes me wonder what else is laying around that we might not truly understand.”

In the 2012 movie Prometheus, David the android flies an alien spacecraft. Unlikely – but at least the writers had David study a massive number of foreign languages during the voyage to the planet. The writers also provided him with a recording of the Engineers starting the craft. A mildly believable difference from the Star Trek inspired one-minute-of-fiddling to bring the main reactor back online.

Believable Dialog is a Reflection of Cultures

This is where The Music Teacher starts – how would we react to an alien device with no context in current society. I could have written it as a lump of inert technology with no battery power left, but that wouldn’t have been much of a story. I left it’s power intact, but I left its actual purpose unstated. We know it inspires music in the possessor – but in an alien sort of way that only other infected musicians understand. It isn’t clear why it inspires music – maybe it’s trying to teach language. Or starship navigation. Or letters in an alphabet. In the end, it’s an alien device and we simply don’t know.

I’ve had the good fortune of attending lectures by Doctor Richard Rohrbaugh. He is a true biblical scholar – one who has studied the Bible in its original languages and will point out translation errors from one edition to the next. He has a depth of understanding that shames million-dollar TV evangelists.

His lectures stress that understanding the Bible requires you understand ancient the norms and ethics of society. The parables, psalms and stories are written in language specifically meant for an agrarian audience, rather than our industrial society. Property and family have vastly different meanings in the two cultures. Likewise, I don’t think we will understand alien technology until we understand the culture responsible for its creation.

The characters in “The Music Teacher” use their personal experience to give Mr. Flat Five context. They take a nameless, ethically inert device and overlay it with their own interpretations. Their interpretation is most likely wrong.

By the Way: Thanks Bruce

Finally, a note of appreciation to Bruce Bethke, the editor of Stupefying Stories. He originally rejected this story with my favorite of all time response…

Dear Mark,

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider your story, “The Music Teacher.” After reading and discussing it, and then holding it for further consideration, we’ve decided to pass on it.

I must admit, I do so with considerable reluctance. We see a fair number of music-based SF/F stories come through here, and most of them are total crap, written by people who wouldn’t know the difference between E diminished-seventh and a ham sandwich. Your story starts off a bit rocky, but once it hits its stride on page 3, it is just *terrific* — until it doesn’t so much end as disintegrate, somewhere around page 11.

If you can figure out a real ending for this one — not a D.S. al Coda, “repeat and fade out,” but some kind of satisfying finale — we’d love to see it again.

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories

Bruce was right. The original story had Josh and the narrator riding off into the sunset. It was a weak ending and a weak story. After I finished laughing about the ham sandwich, I ripped the story apart and rebuilt it, this time with a real ending. Writers – hear this. Savor every rejection letter, especially those with feedback.