Book Review: The Metallic Muse, Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (1972)

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(Ed Nuckolls’ cover for the 1972 edition)

3.5/5 (collated rating: Good)

Over the years I’ve collected quite a few of Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s SF novels and collections but have not read any of his work since late 2011 when I reviewed The Light That Never Was (1972). Mike’s mostly positive review of his short stories in The Metallic Muse (1972) reminded me of my lack of knowledge of Biggle, Jr.’s strange brand of relatively breezy but earnest SF.  And due to an unnatural aggregation of cosmic particles, our ratings align with unnerving precision.

Many of the stories in The Metallic Muse center around the transformative power of music and art: for example, a song calls space orphans back home in “Orphan of the Void”; an artist dares to create non-commercial music in “The Tunesmith”; TV keeps the masses in line in “Well of the Deep Wish”; and a robotic violin teacher deprives a professor of his students in “Spare the Rod.”  Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s ebullient style of telling sometimes trivializes and simplifies the heady themes, but his inventiveness and positivism invigorates.

All but one of the seven stories are worth reading! Recommended for fans of 50s/60s SF.  I might read his novel Monument (1974) next.

Analysis/Summary

“The Tunesmith” (1957), novelette, 4/5 (Good): Erlin Baque (you know, Bach) composes Com music — i.e. music for commercials with sung slogans: “We start off our Coms by Baque with that little masterpiece Baque did for Foam Soap” (8).  Although everyone knows Baque is the best at what he does, he composes so slowly and so well that companies never want to replace their jingles.  Out of money, Baque leaves the Tunesmiths’ Guild and joins the Performers’ Guild and takes a job at a grimy bar.  Reinvigorated by performance of the best known Coms, he decides to compose music without lyrics.  And, his compositions appear to have a telepathic effect… transforming and enthralling his listeners.  As with “Well of the Deep Wish” later in the collection, those who control art in the “Tunesmith” are the powers that be in the world.  A renegade artist must be suppressed!  The simple but positive theme of art as a force of social change finds traction in this story, and it’s hard not to feel for Erlin Baque.  Enjoyable.

“Leading Man” (1957), short story, 3.5/5 (Good): A man appears to move from historical era to historical era — he remembers the time of Cleopatra, eats an egg and must prepare a speech as the Duke of Wellington, demands his harem somewhere/sometime in the East…. At first glance number 1319 appears to be in an asylum undergoing a form of treatment via theater where particular roles are played out and scenarios devised by the harried staff.  But who are the patients?

The author explains in his introduction to the story how he taught creative writing in a state hospital for the mentally ill, and how a certain experience where he lost his badge and the doctor could not identify who was the patient inspired the story… For a Biggle, Jr. story, this strange adventure doesn’t provide a clear answer to the question.  Regardless, art as treatment is a fascinating premise.

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(“Leading Man” first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1957, cover: Fred Kirberger)

“Spare the Rod” (1958), novelette, 3.5/5 (Good): Professor Oswald J. Perkins transforms his town of Waterville into a rural mecca for the arts: he advocated story contests and poetry contests and essay contests in the town newspaper.  He also teaches students the violin.  However, the Beyers School of Music crops up and offers lessons for free taught by a robot—“the robots gives [the student] two, maybe three lessons, and he plays Beethoven and Berg and Morglitz like a mature artist” (69).  Of course, although the robot might guide the limbs and mimic art, is it art?  In attempt to know his enemy, Perkins signs up for classes — and he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s PhD in musicology does not always show through in his stories about music as he retreats to rather straightforward dilemmas and scenarios.  There are moments where his knowledge peeks out from the SF stylings: describing the future musician Morglitz, he writes: “the last and greatest compositions of Morglitz were inspired by the random beauties he found in composing-machine chaos” (73).  I am reminded of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) as his player piano descends into the disconcerting realm of music unable to be physically performed by humans…

“Orphan of the Void” (variant title: “The Man Who Wasn’t Home”) (1960), novelette, 3/5 (Average): Thomas Jefferson Sandler III is snatched from his “primitive” planet in “exchange” for gifts and adopted by a family on Earth.  As he was quite young, he no longer remembers his home world but a “homing song” draws him back from his galactic wanderings to where he was raised by his adoptive parents, Earth.  Far from satiating his urge to return to his homeworld, Thomas takes up violent measures to discover his past  after Earth’s authorities refuse to divulge his origins.  In many ways, this feels like a commentary on Native Americans who were sent to boarding schools in an effort to “integrate” into American society by erasing their cultural heritage.  The trauma of separation from one’s people and past feels unsubstantial in Biggle Jr.’s hands, perhaps as Thomas is morally despicable.  Worthwhile for the premise—the importance of cultural connection, commentary on colonialism, the desire to learn about one’s past—but fails at delivery.

“Well of the Deep Wish” (1961), short story, 4.5/5 (Very Good): My favorite story of the collection speculates on the power of future media, in this case, TV.  A society deep underground uses TV to satiate the masses.  Bruce Kalder, as he has fallen in love with June Holbertson, agrees to help her father and TV executive solve a pernicious problem, why are the writers no longer producing screenplays?  “We could shot two hundred a day if we had the scripts, but we can’t get the scripts” (140).  Rather than a problem of lack of money/rewards/bonuses, Kalder discovers deeper psychological issues.  The Tank, a vast construct with an artificial sky and numerous environments, serves to inspire writers and create the sets for the films themselves.  However, the writers no longer seem to be inspired by this virtual reality and can no longer work within the constraints of the film “Code.” Kalder prods them to work outside of what is allowed, with transformative consequences.

Obviously a commentary on Hollywood’s Hays code (1945-1968), “Well of the Deep Wish” despite its lightness, executes a simple but powerful message.   Providing only minor details of the world itself—conveyed in potential movie plots, events such as the evacuation of families due to radiation seepage, and the writers growing psychological problems stemmed from their deprivation of “real” stimuli—Biggle, Jr. demonstrates his penchant for positioning art as a powerful agent of social change.

“In His Own Image” (1968), short story, 4/5 (Good): Gorton Effro steals the a bottle of “the best Donardian brandy” (166) and decides to sleep it off in a spaceship’s lifeboat.  After the rest of the crew is killed in a disaster, Effro manages to escape to an emergency space station where he awaits rescue.  Initially assuming he is the sole occupant of the station, he encounters “a lay predicant” dressed in “tattered vestments” who believes Effro is an “Excellency” (161).  This religious fanatic tends to his “flock,” the stations robotic servitors.  Although Effro is content to drink himself into a stupor waiting for rescue, the religious fanatic has other plans for him — and sees Effro for the sinner he really is.  An on point ending hints at other layers.  Biggle Jr. spins a wild tale filled with biblical imagery, twist endings, and the robotic religious. Recommended.

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(“In His Own Image” first appeared in the January 1968 of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, cover: Ed Emshwiller)

“The Botticelli Horror” (1960), novelette, 2/5 (Bad): The setting: Gwinn Center, Kansas, “a town out of a history book” (177).  The premise: an entity consumes young children. The suspects: the performers from a traveling circus—“EXOTIC WONDERS OF THE UNIVERSE” (182)–who are various Venusian creatures including a mold and a shapeshifting creature named Elmer.  An investigation ensues… In a way it reminds me of John Brunner’s run at the monster mill novel Double, Double (1969)—monster movie material that doesn’t highlight the skills of their respective authors.  Best avoided.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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(George Barr’s cover for the 1974 edition)

19 Replies to “Book Review: The Metallic Muse, Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (1972)”

  1. Good review. I’ve read a couple of his shorts in Galaxy and F&SF, but haven’t really read much by Biggle… Not bad but didn’t make an impression on me. Maybe I should have read some of these stories instead. I also have one novel of his for some reason, All the Colors of Darkness, which I have yet to read.

    1. I was pleasantly surprised considering the average The Light That Never Was (1972) — the only other Biggle, Jr. work I had read. But yes, I can imagine encountering the two stories in the collection I disliked and forgetting them immediately afterwards. I enjoyed how most of the stories linked up with the theme of art as a force of social change. Maybe I was in a generous mood! haha.

  2. Biggle was one of a myriad of writers who filled the sf magazines during their heyday of the fifties and sixties. I remember reading and liking his stuff, as I did others like Alan E. Nourse, Ed Wellen, J. F. Bone, early Silverberg, early Ellison, etc. That doesn’t mean that over the years these fictions have held up, I was so much less a demanding reader back then, but, your review reminds me of two things: the first is that I should go look him up and re-read him, and just how rare, even now, stories about art and music are in science fiction. These themes are much more common in horror and fantasy fictions, but perhaps a “best of” arts in sf is needed, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Elwood or Greenberg have already done one.

    Maybe a review of one of his novels will appear in the near future? He later became better known for his Holmesian novels.

    1. Do you remember any of the stories in this collection? They are definitely not demanding stories, but manage to engage with intriguing themes regardless.

      There are a few art-related collections of SF that come to mind — I own a copy of The Arts and Beyond: Visions of Man’s Aesthetic Future (1977), ed. Thomas F. Monteleone although I have yet to read it. Here are the contents:

      http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?35367

      Ian Watson wrote a few art-related stories I enjoyed — For example, “The Girl Who Was Art” (1976) in the collection The Very Slow Time Machine (1979): https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/book-review-the-very-slow-time-machine-ian-watson-1979/

      And of course, the Vermillion Sands sequence by Ballard (I’ve reviewed a few here and there)…. and the Aventine sequence by Lee Killough.

  3. By-the-way, what an excellent cover for the DAW printing, better than so much of the mediocre photo covers that “grace” pop fictions now.

  4. I’ve read “The Botticelli Horror” in Asimov’s “Mammoth Book of Monsters”.I don’t think I thought much of it than you.The one I remember best from there,is Bob Silverberg’s “Passengers”.

    I have this one on my wish list,and from what I knew,I had greater hopes of it,but along with the one I cited above,and the fact there’s only one even close to a near masterpiece,doesn’t really make me want to go for now.Sorry.

      1. I might like some of them,but there’s other books ahead in the queue I want to read yet,that are obviously better.By the way,I think that’s “Mammoth Book of Aliens”.

  5. I quite like Biggle and occasionally wish I had decided to keep this collection. I did keep one called The Silent Sky, which is, iirc, a re-titling of the collection called The Rule of the Door.
    My favourite novel of his is probably Monument, a feel-good lost colony novel. I’d be interested to see your review if you do decide to read it next.

    1. I have a copy of Monument and initially planned on reading it next (as I indicated in the review) but, I tend to wander over to the shelf, browse all the books, pick something up, put it back down, think about it for a while, read a few pages, etc etc. And, Universe 3 won out (Silverberg + Wolfe + Pangborn + Effinger, et al).

      1. Yes. It’s a good little story, that’s relevant to today I believe. We don’t live underground, but our society uses TV to pacify the masses because they don’t have enough real reality to keep them busy.

        When I read your review of The Metalic Muse I wanted to rush out and buy it. But I’ve recently discovered that I’m buying 10 books for every 1 I read. I’ve got to stop that. So I went looking for your favorite story on the net and found it. It’s a shame that all the old SF magazines aren’t on the net like IF.

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