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"It's a Sugar song."
June 4, 2013 6:06 PM   Subscribe

Orson Scott Card's Unaccompanied Sonata [Google Books], which he has called one of his favorite short stories, is an darkly enchanting tale about a boy who, at a young age, is taken from his family and brought to a house deep in the forest...
posted by Rory Marinich (40 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Proof that you don't need to be a very good person to tell a great story.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:16 PM on June 4, 2013 [13 favorites]


I was really into Card, whose work I knew from Analog, when this was published.
posted by thelonius at 6:50 PM on June 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


Wow, thelonius, that's a real find. Pity there aren't more illustrations for Card's story there.

For all his icky personal life stuff and his uneven-quality novels, he is a phenomenal short story writer, really able to tell and sell a wide variety of stories. He has a knack for casual gruesomeness and for capturing small, beautiful moments. It's a shame he's doing such a good job of burying what would otherwise be a legendary career as a writer.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:01 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Read it in Omni when it came out. Great and disturbing story.
posted by octothorpe at 7:03 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


A couple of years ago I went back and read some of OSC's 70s stories, including "Fat Farm." They were really good, but you could really see how driven they were by horror at the human body and its appetites. This was not something I picked up on when I was eight.
posted by escabeche at 7:06 PM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


one of my oldest favorites... Never thought i'd see it as an fpp
posted by infini at 7:08 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I nominate Card as the Lovecraft of the modern age.
posted by Nomyte at 7:15 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


that's a real find

I learned about archive.org's OMNI magazine stash elsewhere, but it's been posted here too. I loved that best of SF issue #1 SO MUCH when I was a kid, and now I have the rest. Sweet!

I think he expanded the idea in this story into the novella "Songbird". It's funny, I was Card's #1 fan for a couple of years, but then I lost interest in SF and never even read "Ender's Game", which is, I guess, what most of his fans first read.
posted by thelonius at 7:23 PM on June 4, 2013


Nomyte: "I nominate Card as the Lovecraft of the modern age"

Lovecraft was really quite a lot less odious and theoretical about his horrible opinions, and was much more a product of his time. He also got a bit more enlightened towards the end of his life. Card has no such excuses, actively participates in policy debates, and seems to only get worse. So I'll take Lovecraft any day.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:24 PM on June 4, 2013 [18 favorites]


Songbird was based on another short story of his, actually: "Mikal's Songbird", which is available on Card's web site if you're curious. I recall it being one of his better ones, too.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:26 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read this in Omni, too. Thanks for posting it.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:44 PM on June 4, 2013


Thanks Rory. The thematic similarity (children, music) and 30 years distance have led me astray.
posted by thelonius at 7:50 PM on June 4, 2013


Card is absolutely a born storyteller. I wish we could have seen a world in which he didn't become such a raving loon corrupted by his LDS upbringing. But I still love many of his works.
posted by Justinian at 7:59 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


"It's a Sugar song."

What does any of this have to do with Bob Mould?
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:21 PM on June 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


I'd say rather that Card is the Dave Sim of our era.
posted by happyroach at 8:25 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Card is absolutely a born storyteller. I wish we could have seen a world in which he didn't become such a raving loon corrupted by his LDS upbringing.

We tried that, and it turns out that in that world the Tlaxcalan Empire invade Eurasia and institute a regime of maize cultivation and human sacrifice. So we had to send another guy back and, uh... how much do you want to know about the sterile piercing implement?
posted by No-sword at 8:26 PM on June 4, 2013 [24 favorites]


I can't believe in this genius who invents great music all by himself without any connection to other musicians. I think even a musical genius in that situation would just reinvent the pentatonic scale and produce some basic stuff that's not all that different from existing music.

One part of the story that I think Card gets horribly right is the way the protagonist becomes a Watcher at the end. If you had your fingers and tongue cut off "for the good of society," the most likely reaction would be either to reject that society and rebel against its values or to become a True Believer and try to rationalize society as somehow worth what you had to sacrifice for it. Such True Believers would be ideal enforcers. "If I gave up my fingers for the greater good of society, I can cut yours off too."
posted by straight at 8:27 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


An excellent short story from back when I read it in Omni...

But the main link here just goes to a generic title card blurb for 'Maps in a Mirror'... from my view, anyway.
posted by ovvl at 8:32 PM on June 4, 2013


Regarding your last point, straight, I would say that one of Orson Scott Card's most fascinating talents is that he constructs these horrific scenarios where there's seemingly as much reason to love a world as there is to hate it. I've always taken Card's word in Unaccompanied Sonata at face value: this is a world in which nearly everybody, all but two dozen men and women, are truly, perfectly happy, and where those two dozen people are only miserable because their ideal path is somehow too disruptive to be allowed for. Where those people are given every possible joy they can be given so long as they are prevented from doing the one thing they cannot do. But the other possibility, that this is a horrible dystopia where the individual is all-but-repressed, is never far from the surface.

In a sense this is a comment on Platonic idealism, hence the metaphor of a composer who only writes music of what is, rather than music which obeys any kind of pattern or fits into any kind of artificial order. Card has a fascination with that kind of idea, almost certainly because of his Mormon faith, but it reminds me more of Taoism than anything. And through that lens, Christian's struggle is a struggle to escape the anxiety of society—that which makes him the most purely himself is corrupted even by a brief encounter with another genius, let alone with Joe and Joe's bar or with the men at the working crew. Each time Christian "falls", it's because another man has attempted to give him something which he doesn't want and "shouldn't" have. And each time, he loses that which that man tried to give him.

Yet ultimately he finds himself reflected in the society around him, sung back at him by people who appreciate him for that unique selfness which he always seems to be in danger of losing. The deeper he loses his identity, the more widely his impact is felt—from the Listeners who, it's implied, share nothing of what they hear with the world, to the people at Joe's bar, to the working crews that spread his music, and finally down to the teenage kids with their guitars. While Card focuses on this idea that there's something pure from which we're all shaped, he argues that what we lose in the shaping is made up for in the impact of our connections to each other.

It's an ambiguous and surprisingly insightful take on humanity, identity, God, and faith, and for a while that was Card's trademark as a writer. That ability to see things both ways and write without paying any overt allegiance to either perspective is still kind of remarkable to me. Many of his novels have that, including most of the Ender quartet, but then at some point I think he convinced himself that he "knew" the answers to the questions he'd been so interested in, and at that point he became more overtly preachy and more convinced that he understood all the mysteries that he once was so good at revealing. It goes beyond caricature. The most recent additions to the extended Ender universe have been truly appalling.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:57 PM on June 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


I think RM is basically right, but I also think this puts a finger on why I think "Unaccompanied Sonata" is weaker than some of the other OSC stories from around the same time; because it's too abstract, like a thought experiment instead of a real experiment. Give me people with names who listen, not people without names called Listeners.

It's the same reason "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is weak among Ursula K. LeGuin stories of the same period.
posted by escabeche at 9:02 PM on June 4, 2013


I wish we could have seen a world in which he didn't become such a raving loon corrupted by his LDS upbringing.

I read this story as an allegory for the conflict between art and authoritative religious power. Don't even get me started on Xenocide and the hand washing. I guess I'm saying that he wouldn't have written this same story without his LDS upbringing.
posted by mecran01 at 9:04 PM on June 4, 2013


I'd say rather that Card is the Dave Sim of our era.

Yes, but galactically, humans are considered to be the Dave Sim of the sentient races.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:04 PM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Curiously, escabeche, that reason is why Card counted "Unaccompanied Sonata" as a fantasy rather than a science fiction story in his collection Maps in a Mirror. He saw it as fable rather than fiction. And the charm of a fable is unique to the form.

As far as ripping good yarns by Card go, I think "Eye for Eye" was always one of my favorites.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:08 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the start of "Eye for Eye":
Just talk, Mick. Tell us everything. We'll listen.

Well to start with I know I was doing terrible things. If you're a halfway decent person, you don't go looking to kill people. Even if you can do it without touching them. Even if you can do it so as nobody even guesses they was murdered, you still got to try not to do it.

Who taught you that?

Nobody. I mean it wasn't in the books in the Baptist Sunday School—they spent all their time telling us not to lie or break the sabbath or drink liquor. Never did mention killing. Near as I can figure, the Lord thought killing was pretty smart sometimes, like when Samson done it with a donkey's jaw. A thousand guys dead, but that was okay cause they was Philistines. And lighting foxes' tails on fire. Samson was a sicko, but he still got his pages in the Bible.

I figure Jesus was about the only guy got much space in the Bible telling people not to kill. And even then, there's that story about how the Lord struck down a guy and his wife cause they held back on their offerings to the Christian church. Oh, Lord, the TV preachers did go on about that. No, it wasn't cause I got religion that I figured out not to kill people.
Seriously, how does a guy capable of being that witty and cynical about religious faith turn into what OSC's become? Was it just a particularly bad case of mellowing out?
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:15 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


We called it the Brain Eater on RASFW. OSC developed a particularly malignant case at a particularly young age but he wasn't alone in the phenomenon.
posted by Justinian at 10:00 PM on June 4, 2013


Am I being dim or is this just a link to a place where you can buy a book that presumably contains the story? Because that's what it seems to be, for me.
posted by Decani at 10:03 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm echoing DecemberBoy, when you say "Sugar" and "song" and it doesn't have anything to do with Bob Mould, you're doing a great disservice to the community. Especially when it turns out to be something to do with OSC.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 10:07 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because that's what it seems to be, for me.

Is the URL the same when you mouseover the link as when you open it? Because there might be a redirect in there somewhere.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:10 PM on June 4, 2013


I loved that story so much when I read it in my early teens. It actually inspired my own first world-building efforts based on the horrifying presence that people could try to stop you from creating. I just couldn't get that out of my head. Looking forward to reading it again, thanks for the post, Rory Marinich, and the link on the Internet Archive, thelonius!
posted by Athanassiel at 11:51 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


is an darkly enchanting tale about a boy

And a pack of sentimental, dangerous, moronic nonsense start to finish. "Great art only happens if the artist has no outside influences whatsoever" only being the least of it. The sadism that Card inflicts on his hero is of course not unique; he takes great pleasure to hurt and destroy children in his stories.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:32 AM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


No-sword: "Card is absolutely a born storyteller. I wish we could have seen a world in which he didn't become such a raving loon corrupted by his LDS upbringing.

We tried that, and it turns out that in that world the Tlaxcalan Empire invade Eurasia and institute a regime of maize cultivation and human sacrifice. So we had to send another guy back and, uh... how much do you want to know about the sterile piercing implement?
"

Yeah, well, guys, that was me. My quantum bad. I was working on a world where both Card and Sim stayed sane and cool, Firefly stayed on the air, Mathowie was 1000% healthy and rich and hand every bike he ever wanted, and I could get dates like no one's business. So, statute of limitations in this light cone have expired, right?
posted by Samizdata at 1:32 AM on June 5, 2013


had every bike, even.
posted by Samizdata at 1:40 AM on June 5, 2013


Am I being dim or is this just a link to a place where you can buy a book that presumably contains the story? Because that's what it seems to be, for me.

It was definitely the text when I clicked it at the time of posting. Does Google Books have some kind of global limit for previews served, I wonder, after which you get the same kind of page that non-scanned books have?
posted by thelonius at 4:57 AM on June 5, 2013


I remember reading this in Omni when it first came out, too.

Card certainly seems to have a thing or two to say about child prodigies and talent identification schemes.
posted by enrevanche at 5:05 AM on June 5, 2013


Yes, for me this link just goes to a bunch of reviews.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:11 AM on June 5, 2013


Just talking with Philosopher Dirtbike, and yeah, it looks like this is blocked in some locations.

It's (sort of painfully) readable from the archived Omni issue linked above by thelonius, here. You'll probably need to use the controls to zoom in.
posted by taz at 6:08 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


had every bike, even.

Too late!

(Cut to the dark, windswept ruin of a once-great city. Horrifying, Gigeresque hand/bike hybrids snarl and brawl for dominance. Caption: HAND-BIKE NEW YORK, 2020. Pan to half-destroyed but still recognizable Statue of Liberty, whose hands are both bikes.)
posted by No-sword at 6:30 AM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow, this story hit me really hard when I first read it, in a secondhand book with a hokey giant-metal-claw-surging-from-the-sea cover. At the time I was young enough that the cover of the collection was the draw, peeking out from the pastel flowers'n'tragedy of the church thrift shop books. I also didn't know until ten minutes ago that it was written by OSC. Talented.

Great find, OP.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 9:47 AM on June 5, 2013


And a pack of sentimental, dangerous, moronic nonsense start to finish. "Great art only happens if the artist has no outside influences whatsoever" only being the least of it.

To me, the story emphatically refutes that notion. The key is the Watchers and the Listeners are completely wrong about everything. They're wrong that Christian's music was/would be better without connection to other musicians. They're decadently wrong to value novelty and innovation above all else. They're wrong to attempt to draw a bright line between "high" and "vulgar" art. They're wrong that the masses are better off without being exposed to Christian's music. They're wrong to castrate disobedient artists, and Christian is tragically wrong for joining their cause after he's been castrated.

All that seems completely supported by the text, except maybe the perversity of the Listeners' obsession with novelty (although that goes along with Card's views, if you read his essay "Vulgar Art.)
posted by straight at 12:06 PM on June 5, 2013


OH, I loved that story in high school, and it led me to get into classical music. So sad.
posted by jfwlucy at 12:07 PM on June 5, 2013


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