I’m still halfway through the James Tiptree, Jr collection I got off Amazon, so I don’t want to start reading Matter yet, even though my brother lent me his copy on the weekend. But I was hefting it and flicking through the nerdcore-ultimate appendices at the back (how many pages of species?) and I found this thought passing through my head: “Banksie’s using a bloody big orchestra for this one”.
The more I think about this analogy, which was accidental, the better it gets. (I wasn’t deliberately punning on ‘space opera’; my brain just overlapped the categories of resources available to sf writers, and ensemble sizes in 19th century symphonic music. Although all the Liebestod in Tiptree probably helped it along.)
Genre tropes as musical instruments. Very few are ever invented by a single person, like the saxophone or the time machine: mostly, like violins and warp drives, they belong to that strange category of cultural objects which grow slowly and anonymously, like recipes, clothes and furniture. Still, they will often be strongly associated with particular composers or writers (Debussy and the piano, Asimov and robots). They go in and out of fashion, and there are more or less rigid conventions as to which ones go well together.
Naturalistic fiction would be vocal music. Something of a bias exists in favour of the human voice, which is considered more authentic. In certain periods, the use of instruments has even been rejected altogether, on the grounds that they are absurd, childish and contrary to nature. Even during the most puritanical periods, however, some instruments are held to be acceptable by long-standing convention, such as the use of ghosts and witches by the composer Shakespeare.