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Monday 20 May 2024

ON WINGS OF SONG - Book review


A strange book, this. Critically acclaimed yet a commercial failure, Thomas M Disch’s science fiction novel On Wings of Song won the 1980 John W Campbell memorial Award. It was published in 1979.

The first part relates Daniel Weinreb’s childhood in twenty-first century town of Amesville in Iowa, whose strict Christian Right regime of the Undergoders prohibits almost all music. ‘Why were people like that so bent on patrolling people’s most private thoughts?’ (p111).

With a friend he sneaked away and crossed the border to watch a musical movie. ‘This, then, was what it was all about. This, when it issued from within you, was the liberating power that all other powers feared and wished to extirpate: song. It seemed to Daniel that he could feel the music in the most secret recesses of his body, an ethereal surgeon that would rip his soul free from its crippling flesh’ (p31).

Daniel’s world changes when his minor rebellion – in the form of circulating a radical newspaper – condemns him to the local prison at Spirit Lake. He is fourteen. While here, he hears prisoners play music. ‘... there seemed to be this difference between the language of music and the language of words: it didn’t seem possible, in the language of music, to lie’ (p52). The prison is without bars – for each prisoner carries an electrically controlled explosive in his stomach (after a fashion, pre-empting the Rutger Hauer 1991 movie Wedlock).

Daniel, like many people, is aware that with the help of special apparatus providing some kind of feedback, the users can fly when they sing. In essence, the singer’s body stays fixed to the apparatus but the ‘soul’ – or referred to as the ‘fairy’ – floats away, something like remote viewing which was postulated and seemingly adopted by Ingo Swann in the early 1970s.  Daniel is captivated by this idea and is determined to learn to sing and then to fly...

Released from prison, he becomes friendly with Boadicea, the daughter of local tycoon Grandison Whiting, usually referred to as Boa. Inevitably, they fall in love. ‘... and felt himself to be, with her, ineffably, part of a single process that began in that faraway furnace that burned atoms into energy... the moment when he had felt needles of light piercing his and Boa’s separate flesh, knitting their bodies like two threads into the intricate skein of that summer’s profusions’ (p152).

National shortages – due to many factors including terrorism – affected the people in New York and elsewhere. Chris Moor's cover illustration depicts the decadent milieu Daniel is embroiled in. There’s a poignant episode where a body builder cannot obtain his proteins either legally or on the black market: as his muscles waste, he deteriorates and ‘he blew out his brains’ (p241).

A great deal of musical knowledge is displayed, notably operas. Eventually, Daniel does learn to sing. Bearing in mind that some aspects of the novel can be construed as a bitter satire, the ending is probably apt, though I didn’t like it.

As may be gleaned from the above quotations, Disch was also a poet. The writing is very good. Sadly, Disch suffered depression after the death of his life-partner Charles Naylor and about three years, in his New York apartment, later he shot himself. He was 68.

Editorial note:

‘The table was set and everyone was watching a panel discussion about the new fertilizers in the living room’ (p139). Presumably there were no fertilizers in the living room. This should read: ‘The table was set in the living room and everyone was watching a panel discussion about the new fertilizers’.

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