Book soundtrack: Universal Language

Universal Language

My Martian murder-mystery novella, Universal Language, will be published on 6th April. It’s a classic locked-room mystery with a twist (besides being set on Mars, that is): the body of scientist Jerem Ferrer is discovered in an airlocked room, and the sole suspect is a robot whose Asimovian behaviour protocols mean it can’t actually commit murder. Private-eye ‘Optic’ Abbey Oma is on the case, soon joined by puppyish Franck Treadgold, investigating the political, commercial and criminal networks of the Mars colony to determine who killed Jerem Ferrer.

Recently I’ve written a bunch of blog posts to introduce different aspects of the novella – I’ll post links to them as they appear on venues around the web. This post is about an aspect that I suspect is more important to me than any potential readers: a book soundtrack. Still, I think it may act as much as an effective primer to the novella as a consolidation for readers who’ve already completed it.

I’ve played this game of creating a book soundtrack for each of my novels and novellas. It doesn’t so much reflect the music I’ve written to, but rather a soundtrack to a hypothetical film adaptation. Having begun to put together a soundtrack after the first draft, the tracks often begin to ‘infect’ scenes on a second or third pass, informing tone, pace or, in some circumstances, characterisation. By the time the manuscript is complete, the soundtrack is (in my mind) inseparable from the book.

Click here to listen to the Universal Language book soundtrack on Spotify. And here’s my reasoning behind the choices:

1. Space Is the Place / We Travel the Spaceways – Sun Ra & His Arkestra
I can’t remember when I decided that my intergalactic private detective, Optic Abbey Oma, would be a fan of free jazz. Quite possibly, it was when I first put my mind to soundtrack choices, after the first draft. I loved the thought of hurtling across the Martian wastes in a rover, blasting Sun Ra from her suit’s in-built speakers. ‘Space is the Place’ is rather on the nose, but I still feel it’s perfect, and this live version performed at Inter-Media Arts in 1991 is raw and raucous, and features a grandstanding outro that would appeal to Abbey’s own ego.

2. I Will Try – Holy Motors
Abbey in detective mode. Despite her bravado and callous exterior, she’s astute and thoughtful. And judging by this song choice, she’s as smooth and idiosyncratic an investigator as Chris Isaak’s Agent Desmond in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Did I mention yet that Abbey Oma would be played by Gwendoline Christie in a film adaptation, if I had any say in the matter?

3. Very Special – Duke Ellington
The wildest of bop. Any of several tracks from Ellington’s album Money Jungle would have fitted. Ideally, this track would play every time Abbey begins to follow a new lead.

4. Price to Pay – Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement
As much as anything, I find a John Peel-ish joy in following Duke Ellington with Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, though I stand by this segue. Despite her façade, Abbey Oma is prone to deflation, and this track evokes that mood as much as her concentration on the task at hand.

5. Terrain – Julia Kent
Another handily literal track title, as this is music to evoke the Martian landscape. The colonists complain of shared dreams of storms which, I think, would sound like this.

6. Nina Simone – Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter
Abbey Oma’s self-professed ‘theme song’, with lyrics that resonate with her professional attitude: ‘Clean up your rap, your story’s getting dusty / Wash out your mouth, your lies are getting rusty’. Within the novella, this track is notable for making even mild-mannered Franck whoop and thump the steering wheel.

7. Why Spend the Dark Night With You – Moondog
I love that Abbey loves Moondog. I think they’d get on well, this spacefaring private eye and the busking ‘Viking of 6th Avenue’. This brief, beautiful track is whistled by Abbey twice in the novella, one time while levelling a pistol at Franck.

8. My Little Grass Shack – The Polynesians
Variety is important in both a work of fiction and a book soundtrack. This kitsch Hawaiian ditty represents a turning point in the plot, and, oddly enough given its cheeriness, Abbey’s lowest moment.

9. For Murder – Teresa Winter
A murky mirror image of the Moondog track, featuring the repeated lyric, ‘I’ll show you what the night is for’. I won’t spoil what the night is for.

10. Galaxy Around Oludumare – Alice Coltrane
Another fairly blunt selection, I suppose, but Abbey would love this as much as I do. The entirety of Coltrane’s incredible album World Galaxy suggests off-kilter otherworldliness, the orchestral arrangement at the start of this track is peerless, and the swirling electronica presaging the insane saxophone ‘melody’ is utterly disorienting.

11. Listen to Bach (The Earth) – Eduard Artemyev
Another slight cheat, as this is taken from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. But I think it does a wonderful job of evoking the burgeoning religious influence within the Martian community in Universal Language, and it’s insanely beautiful to boot.

12. Sunset – Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids
End credits music, I suppose. After all that woozy free jazz, this is far more grounded and light. I rarely write happy endings, but the ending to Universal Language makes me smile. I hope one day I’ll get to write more about Abbey and Franck’s continuing cases. They’re a lovely team.

Click here to access the soundtrack playlist via Spotify.

Find out more about Universal Language here.

One thought on “Book soundtrack: Universal Language”

Comments are closed.