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THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
The Exemplar of Contemplation
Dear Reader, two whitsuns orbit the planet Uranus; one is called Puck, the other, Bottom. They burn just above the swirling clouds of that giant planet, and with the help of the planet’s soft green light they illuminate all that dark corner of the solar system. Basking in the green glow of this trio are a host of worlds—little worlds, to be sure, worlds no bigger (and many smaller) than the asteroid Vesta—but worlds, nevertheless, each of them encased in a clear sphere of air like little villages in glass paperweights, and each of them a culture and society unto itself. These worlds orbit in ellipses just outside the narrow white bands of Uranus’s rings; you might say that the band of worlds forms a new ring in the planet’s old girdle: the first dozen made of ice chunks held in smooth planes, the newest made of an irregular string of soap bubbles, filled with life. And what holds all these various worlds together, what is their lingua franca? Music.
Our story, then, has its beginning—one of its beginnings—on one of these worlds, the one called Holland. Holland is a somewhat irregular moonlet, verdant in its lowlands, bare and moorish on its hilltops, which the locals call tors. And in a heather-floored dell, near a pebble-bottomed stream, under one of the tallest of these tors, there stands a lone cottage, sheltered by a single yew tree. Over this cottage, in the spring of the year 3229, a clear dawn pulsed with a pure light; a shaft of this dawn, a Puckish gleam, peered in thecottage window, and inside Dent Ios awoke.
Dent came to consciousness still entangled in a dream, and so he sat up groggy and apprehensive. He had been dreaming that Holland had caught fire, and that it was his job to warn all his neighbors. He had run down the path with a big club in his hands, shouting like Paul Revere and tripping over every stone and root; pounding on doors until they opened and his final blows struck the inhabitants; running from the angry victims, and calling out to houses that they passed as they ran; grabbing canisters to quench small patches of the blaze, and finding he had picked up gasoline; until at last he was felled by a low blow from his own club, so that he sprawled panting in the dust, surrounded by fire.
Cursing the random neuronal firing that produced such visions, Dent climbed out of bed and doused his head under the kitchen tap. Still on the stove top was a big black pan, caked with a layer of hardened bacon grease. Dent wrinkled his nose. It was cool; he stepped into pants, and pulled a thick blouse over his head. Returning from his outhouse, he heard music from the path leading up the dell to his house. Someone was coming. He hurried inside to clean up a bit.
His cottage was a mess. Dirty dishes were stacked on every surface of the kitchen nook, discarded clothing covered the floor, and books and holo cubes were scattered everywhere. Dent was one of those on Holland who affected the pastoral style of life popular there, although a close look at his home, crowded as it was with books, musical instruments, sheet music, prints, holo cubes, and computer consoles, revealed his many refined (some on Holland would say over-refined) interests. Though his cottage was nominally a farm, no sign of farming marked its interior—and few signs of farming marked its exterior, if the truth were told. Unlike most of his neighbors, Dent hiked to the local village and bought most of his food, and his neglected tomato patch struggled under an onslaught of weeds. Now he stumbled hastily around his unmade bed, and despaired of ordering the place in time to greet his visitors properly. He resolved to meet them in the yard.
Over the shadowed hills to the east Puck gleamed from the very center of Uranus, so that the planet seemed an immense opal around the diamond chip of the whitsun. This added to the yellow dawn a touch of green that made the dewy heather glow. From the last set of switchbacks on the trail up the dell came the sound of voices. Dent took his long moustaches between soft delicate fingers, and pulled on them desperately: uninvited guests—and in the morning! A crisis!
Three figures appeared over the steepest part of the trail, and Dent relaxed. Approaching were three of his good friends: June Winthrop, Irdar Komin, and Andrew Allendale. June was playing a piano bar, and Irdar and Andrew sang with her. When they saw Dent standing in his yard they waved. “Hill dweller!” June sang. “Three wise ones approach, bearing news!” And the two men flanking her sang peals of harmonized laughter.
Dent led them to the benches under the yew tree, and rubbed dew into the planking. “What brings you here so early? You must have left the village before sunrise.”
“Well,” June said, “you missed last night’s meeting!” And Andrew and Irdar laughed. All four of them were part of the collective that published Thistledown, a monthly journal of music criticism and commentary that was considered the best in the Uranus system; the collective met at irregular intervals in the village nestling in the valley below Dent’s little dell.
“I’m sorry,” Dent said, at a loss. “One of my tapirs was calving.”
June laughed sardonically. “I hope you had some assistance! I was with Dent the last time one of his ewes birthed,” she told the others, “and he had a vet come and do everything, while he hopped about white as a sheet!”
“I suppose your many past and future marriages make you a qualified midwife,” Dent said, to the groans of his friends. “Anyway, I’m sorry about the meeting. I hope I didn’t miss anything important?”
And his three friends burst into gales of laughter! Annoyed, Dent said, “Please! What happened?”
June played the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth: Fate knocking at the door. “After a long discussion it was decided that Thistledown should have a correspondent covering the Grand Tour of Holywelkin’s Orchestra.”
“Oh my,” Dent said distastefully. “I should have thought it beneath us.…” Then he saw the looks on his friends’ faces, and came to a halt. “Wait a minute—you don’t mean—” He stood up. “You don’t mean you want me—”
June nodded. “We decided unanimously that you would do the best job.”
“No!” Dent cried. He circled the yew in agitation, said simply, “I won’t do it.”
“You must!” said Andrew cheerfully. “It’s just like the presidency—whoever isn’t at the meeting gets stuck with it.”
“But this is far worse,” Dent said. “No, no. It won’t do. I simply couldn’t.” He appealed to June, who currently served as the collective’s president. “That Orchestra is nothing but a toy, really, a bauble used to take money away from the ignorant. Why should we cover any sort of tour made with such a thing?”
“There’s a new Master of the Orchestra,” Irdar said. “Haven’t you followed his work?”
“As I say, I have no interest whatsoever in Holywelkin’s Orchestra.”
“But this Wright is something different. He has been the Master for five years now, and in all that time he hasn’t made a single public performance.”
“Very wise of him, I’m sure.”
“He has only published compositions—etudes, he calls them.”
June said, “You reviewed one of them yourself, Dent. I looked it up last night. One of Wright’s etudes was published in the Lowell Piano Guild journal, and you praised it highly. Original and strange, you called it.”
“Ah,” said Dent, remembering the piece. “That was Wright? How unfortunate that he is yoked to such a monstrous instrument.”
“But he may change the instrument,” Andrew said.
“No,” Dent said, “the Institute that owns it will make sure that nothing but light classics are played on it. That’s its business. The Master is just the lackey of the board of directors—”
“Not true,” June objected. “The Masters are responsible for the repertory. It’s just that Yablonski and his predecessor played what the board of directors suggested. But that may change as well. I’ve heard rumors of friction between Wright and the board, and our Lowell correspondent tells me that Wright was pressured into making this Grand Tour, and that he agreed to only when promised complete artistic control.”
“Irrelevant, with that thing,” Dent said contemptuously. “What is it after all, some sort of player piano? An orchestrionetta, didn’t they call them in Europe? It’s preposterous.”
June sighed. “You’re not being fair. Like it or not, Holywelkin’s Orchestra is one of the most famous musical…phenomena in all the solar system—in all of history, for that matter. These Grand Tours are one of the few times that music from the outer worlds is performed for the inner planets, so during them modern music is revealed to cultures that are centuries behind, musically. And the results are always interesting. Thistledown is the best journal of modern music, and so it follows we must cover this tour.”
“And you’re the best man for the job,” Andrew exclaimed.
“Nonsense,” Dent replied angrily. “My tapir calves, and I am cast across the solar system.”
“But that should be an attraction for you,” June said. “Have you visited the inner planets?”
“No. And I don’t want to.”
“Have you ever visited Pluto?” Irdar asked.
June shook her head. “Where have you traveled?”
Dent tucked his chin down defensively. “I’ve been to Titania and Oberon—”
But he was interrupted by his friends’ laughter. “How old are you?” June inquired.
“I am twenty-six.”
“Twenty-six, and already an old homebody! Dent. Don’t be silly. The chance to travel downsystem doesn’t come often.”
“But I like it here.”
“You’re the same age as Johannes Wright,” Andrew said. “That should make it especially interesting for you.”
“At least leaving Holland would get me away from your smirk,” Dent said, irritated. “What if they had asked you to leave your home for months and months?”
“Come now,” June said. “The collective has decided, and we know you are a true Thistledowner, willing to abide by the will of the majority. Go get yourself an instrument, and we’ll play some music. You’ll get used to the idea, and then you’ll be excited by it.”
“I will not,” Dent said stiffly, and walked up to his cottage to collect himself. Abstractedly he picked up a voicebox, and returned to the yew tree. Puck’s light bounced from the lumpy, dewy grass, giving his untended lawn a gray sheen. A flock of New Guinea lories descended on the yew and landed in it, transforming the tree into a statue filled with multi-colored ornaments. Dent looked around his high little valley and groaned.
Sullenly he sat on one of the benches and tuned up with the others. Andrew and Irdar both had flutes, and they blew up and down the C scale merrily. June played a set of seed chords on the piano bar, and they began to improvise a quartet. For all of them music was a language as subtle and expressive as any collection of words, and as they played within the simple sonata form Dent’s three friends attempted to create a mood of lightness, of harmony, encouragement and enthusiasm. But as everyone knows, harmony is a matter of consensus; one dissenter, and all is discord. And Dent had the instrumental advantage as well. Over the pleasant clear tones of the piano bar and the two flutes, he cast a hoarse, high voice, keening “noooooo, oh noooooo, nooooo, nooooooooooooo,” until the others were laughing too hard to continue.
“We’ll try again later,” June said. “Now Dent, the Grand Tour begins in Lowell during the Outer Worlds May Festival, which is only a month away. You should be off as soon as possible—by tomorrow, in fact. So you’d better start packing. We’ll come by later this afternoon with a cart, and help you carry your bags over to the spaceport. And cheer up! I’ve been downsystem myself, and I know it will be good for you.” Irdar and Andrew added their mocking congratulations, and the three of them departed.
Muttering to himself Dent re-entered his cottage, which had suddenly taken on an indescribable charm, and for a while he just stood in it, stunned. Then he went to the sink and scraped bacon grease from his pan. The smell of it filled his nostrils; out his east window, on the green hillside across the creek, a stand of eucalyptus trees blinked olive and rust and gold. Above them the sky was the color named Holland blue. His tapirs were hooting for feed—he would have to get the collective to care for them—
“Damn!” he said, and smacked the pan on the stove, clang!