Music, Magic, and Memory: A Conversation with Randy Henderson and Silvia Morena-Garcia
There aren’t that many similarities between Randy Henderson’s Finn Fancy Necromancy and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise. But the elements they share are intriguing. Both are debut novels; both were published on February 10th (by Tor and Solaris, respectively); and both are urban fantasies in which music mingles with magic. In Finn Fancy Necromancy, a fifteen-year-old, music-loving necromancer from the ’80s returns to modern-day Seattle after spending twenty-five years imprisoned in stasis for a magical crime he didn’t commit. In Signal to Noise, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Mexico City in the ’80s discovers a way to cast spells using the popular music of the day that she loves.
Despite those coincidental parallels, the tones of the two novels are utterly distinct. Where Finn Fancy Necromancy sports a humorous, easygoing tone spiked with slivers of the horrific, Signal to Noise is more atmospheric, somber, and poignant. Which makes sense, seeing as how Henderson’s previous fiction (which has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Escape Pod, and Writers of the Future Vol. 30, the last being the result of his winning Writers of the Future in 2014) tends toward the lighthearted, while Moreno-Garcia is best known as an award-nominated author and editor of dark fiction (as well as the publisher of the revered, Lovecraft-centric Innsmouth Free Press). Henderson and Moreno-Garcia spoke with Clarkesworld about their books, where music and magic meet, and the role of nostalgia in popular culture.
Finn Fancy Necromancy and Signal to Noise are very different novels, yet they have one big thing in common: Each revolves around the pop culture of decades past, particularly music. What inspired you to make this so central to your books?
Randy Henderson: Um, because ’80s music is totally awesome? Doy! Basically, I'm a child of the ’80s, it is the decade of my formative youth—the decade of post-punk, new Wave, MTV, and the dawn of rap; the rise of video games, home computers, awesome fantasy and science fiction, movies, and the golden sunset of Saturday morning cartoons. So I created an excuse in Finn Fancy Necromancy to share that by having him be an exile from the ’80s in our time.
Silvia Morena-Garcia: My parents and my grandfather worked in radio. We had a lot of records around my house. My parents “made” me a radio talent when I was a kid. I must have been younger than six. Probably around three or four. They had a children’s show on the radio, and they’d use me to record little bits of sound or children’s laughter or anything like that. So sound in general was our bread and butter.
Both books deal with music and magic, but in Signal to Noise, music and magic are closely connected, whereas in Finn Fancy Necromancy, those elements aren’t related at all. What drew you to those respective approaches?
Silvia Morena-Garcia: I don’t recall a draft of Signal to Noise that did not intertwine magic, but I can’t tell you why I thought it was a good idea to have them together.
Randy Henderson: For me, I wanted Finn Fancy Necromancy to have a kind of magic he didn’t actually like or want. And who wouldn't love to cast magic by singing? Well, I guess unless you had to sing [The Beach Boys’] “Kokomo” or [Phil Collins’] “Sussudio” or something. But some Smiths or Clash or New Edition? Heck yeah! Also, I’ve always admired Lyndon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics for its depiction of magic systems and wanted to use something similar.
And of course, I like my main character Finn, so didn’t want him facing a bad guy casting Nickleback and Creed tunes at him, or using auto-tuning. That’s just too cruel.
Why does the music of the past resonates so deeply with you?
Silvia Morena-Garcia: Well, it wasn’t the music of the past! I was a kid in the ’80s. MTV and I share a birth year. And even when I riffled through my parents ABBA records and their Bee Gees records, I had no idea that belonged to another decade. This did not help my popularity, but I’ve never scored too high in the social convention department.
Randy Henderson: Similar story, though I never riffled through her parents ABBA records. The ’80s were my early teens, and music so much defines our teen years for all the obvious reasons—emotional expression, establishing identity, and of course looking for fashion tips you certainly won’t regret later. So the music of the ’80s and early ’90s will always resonate most strongly with my nostalgia bone.
Nostalgia bone. That is a thing right? I think it's one of those tiny floating bones in your listen-hole? Which makes sense why music would trigger it.
Mixtapes also pop up in both your books—and LPs figure prominently in Signal to Noise. What kind of appeal or power do these physical, analog forms of recorded music hold, especially now that digital music has become the norm?
Randy Henderson: A digital playlist can never replace a mixtape/CD. Mixtapes are a physical symbol that you cared enough to spend the time creating it, and decorating/crafting the container is as important as the music. It isn’t just picking a bunch of songs you want to share; it is a carefully crafted message, something that can be held onto for decades.
But if your intent is to confess love via mix tape/CD, just remember Randy’s Rules for Mixtapes: Friend Mixtape for a friend = Awesome. Love Mixtape for someone to whom you’ve expressed a romantic interest after that interest was returned (and not subsequently rejected or legally restricted) = Bodacious. Mixtape O’ True Love for someone who has never shown interest in you romantically and is unaware of your feelings? = Risky (on many levels) at best, creepy or harassing at worst. And for the love of Cheez Whiz, DO NOT RECORD YOURSELF confessing your love or pretending to be a DJ on a mixtape. Just don’t. Ever.
Silvia Morena-Garcia: Like Randy said, the mixtape was not just about curating music; it also involved the visual experience. Mixtapes would often be decorated, so it expressed a graphic and a musical message. Similarly, a vinyl record came with liner notes which could include anything from lyrics to images of the band, biographical data, and commentary. CDs had booklets. It’s not the same experience when you have liner notes than just the music in isolation. They are one. One package. Even though some companies now offer you the ability to download the PDF this is also not the same thing. If the medium is the message, then the message is altered without these physical objects. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, just that it’s not the same experience.
I have an interest in media archeology, and that involves old tech as an object of study. I’ll give you an example: the phonautograph. This is the earliest device known to record sound. It was basically a stylus tracing on paper. But by digitally scanning the tracing we were able to play it back. So essentially a piece of paper is talking to you. And another fun one: There is a project (called Signal to Noise, ha) that repurposes old tech. Here they take old cassettes and a plotter to “play” them. You can’t do that with your MP3, can you?
In Finn Fancy Necromancy, the protagonist is still, in essence, a fifteen-year-old kid from the ’80s. In Signal to Noise, the protagonist is a fifteen-year-old kid in the ’80s. Are there any traces of your own childhoods in these characters?
Randy Henderson: Traces? No. Full-on colored illustrations? Yes. Finn is so very much me, with magic and his own issues. I sometimes worry a bit at the reviews that say I did an excellent job of capturing the stunted emotional and intellectual state of a fifteen-year-old thrust suddenly into a forty-year-old body. Er, that is, I’m sure it was all intentional on my part and reflects nothing more than my brilliant skill as a writer.
Silvia Morena-Garcia: A lot of my stories are autobiographical, and this one falls in that category. I had a really weird time in high school, and I’m still not sure I’m a member of your same species.
These are your debut novels. Before this, had you injected music—or pop culture at large—into any of your short fiction?
Silvia Morena-Garcia: Yep. Mostly stuff about movies. I wrote a story about an El Santo-like character called “Iron Justice Against the Fiends of Evil,” and “Stories with Happy Endings” was inspired by the black and white horror movies I watched as a kid. And then there’s all the Lovecraftiana. A lot of Lovecraftiana. The thing is we exist in a referential society with memes and GIFs, and it is almost impossible not to think pop culture.
Randy Henderson: I had not, beyond basic worldbuilding/background details.
What are some of your favorite works of speculative fiction that use music as a theme or motif?
Randy Henderson: So many! Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy (one of my annual reads). Soul Music by Terry Pratchett. The songs embedded in The Lord of the Rings left a huge impression and obviously made that world truly live. In Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series, the main character's special flavor of magic was rhyming song, so of course I crafted many a rhyming spell in my daydreams after that. A lot of stories by Mercedes Lackey features music or bards. And of course there's always The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
Silvia Morena-Garcia: *crickets*
Randy Henderson: Ha! Crickets also make awesome music. And Buddy Holly was pretty cool.
How about outside of books?
Randy Henderson: Outside of books, there's the classic ’80s game The Bard's Tale. Legend of Zelda incorporated magical tunes as well, for that matter. And of course, who could forget the ’80s movies Heavy Metal, and Rock & Rule (even if you wanted to), both very much speculative fiction operas? But obviously, the most important music-related spec-fic film of all time would have to be Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I mean, their music totally saved the world, dude!
Music isn’t the only kind of vintage pop culture in Finn Fancy Necromancy and Signal to Noise. Books, films, and television also appear, among others. Do you consider your novels to be nostalgic? Is nostalgia, like magic, something that can be used for both good and evil?
Randy Henderson: Michael Underwood has a pretty cool series that uses nostalgia as magic, starting with Geekomancy. I think my character is nostalgic within the novel, but I don’t know that my novel itself is. But maybe I’m splitting hairs. And certainly nostalgia can be used for good or evil. Good: Freaks and Geeks; The Wedding Singer; charity performances. Evil: Transformers and G.I. Joe movies; advertising using nostalgia to sell me crap.
I think it’s fascinating that nostalgia was actually considered a mental disorder back in the good ol’ days. And it can have its downsides. But studies have shown it's actually more good than bad. It gives us a sense of continuity with our past, greater optimism about the future, and greater feelings of connection with others, making us happier, more generous people.
Silvia Morena-Garcia: There’s nothing inherently evil in doing #ThrowbackThursday and putting a few pictures of your degrading youth online for the world to see (at least that’s how I use it), but when you realize exactly how many remakes are buzzing around you and how unilaterally we extend our love to the past, it starts to get a bit creepy. Especially when that “nostalgic” era was full of exclusion. That’s the thing with steampunk. Man, I can’t get into the aesthetic thrill of that because my first gut reflex is “Yay, Happy Colonialism Day.” And you can say “Oh, no, no, dressing as a 19th-century British officer does not mean I am colonialist douchebag,” but when you are looking just at the costume… well, it’s not like the person in costume standing in front of me comes with a virtual Wikipedia page I can access that discusses issues in colonial Africa, for example. The guy just looks like he’s Livingstone.
I mean, I know that someone dressed à la Scarlett O’Hara is not necessarily going to want me to be their Mammy, but my first reaction might not be the most positive. I don’t know, it’s complicated. So… not good or bad. Just complicated.
Randy Henderson: What an amazingly important point, that one person’s nostalgia may be another person’s pain, or disenfranchisement, or oppression. And for some, nostalgia can definitely be a byproduct of the fear of change, or of clinging to some idealized and whitewashed view of a past that perhaps never really existed (“traditional marriage!”, “traditional family!”), and thus can hamper progress or growth.
My love of the ’80s certainly does not include the rise of Wall Street greed and homelessness, trickle-down economics, AIDS, televangelists, and many other very NOT awesome things. And Reagan was a weird hyper-nostalgia entity from the planet of Nostalgiatron, whose Charm Field was powered by nostalgia in life, and many now have nostalgia for his nostalgic vision. I’ll admit I’m not one of them. I mean, Reagan sent Superman to kill Batman, and arguably to cut off Green Arrow’s arm as well [in Frank Miller’s iconic 1986 comic book The Dark Knight Returns]! Thank the gods we had the music to help get us through it all.
So yeah, nostalgia wrapped in ignorance can be hurtful. In fact, most anything wrapped in ignorance can be hurtful. Especially rocks. So let’s wrap ourselves in knowledge and kindness, folks. And remember, we are the world. We are the children.
Jason Heller is the author of the nonfiction book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded (Melville House). He's also a former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld; as part of the magazine's 2012 editorial team, he received a Hugo Award. He wrote the alt-history novel Taft 2012 (Quirk Books), and his fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, Swords v. Cthulhu, and others; his nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, Weird Tales, Tor.com, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Time Traveler's Almanac. He regularly reviews science fiction and fantasy novels for NPR.org, and he's the co-editor of the fiction anthologies Cyber World (with Josh Viola) and Mechanical Animals (with Selena Chambers), both for Hex Publishers. Jason lives in Denver with his wife Angie and plays in the post-punk band Weathered Statues, and he can be found on Twitter: @jason_m_heller.