Sometimes the most disturbing, and most intriguing, stories in the speculative genres are those that take place in seemingly natural circumstances, The streets the characters walk down are nearly identical to the streets you and I walk along on our daily routine. Even most of the things that happen to them are unremarkable as they live out their mundane existence. When something just slightly out of the ordinary is introduced into this environment, it naturally stands out in stark relief to its surroundings.
For audiences raised on the non-stop action of adventure-based fantasy and science fiction, the intellectual and psychological intricacies of works by people like Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges or Britain's J. G. Ballard might seem boring and have little or nothing in common with what they are used to reading. Yet if a reader is willing to persevere, and acclimatize themselves to the slower pace, they will find the rewards from this type of work far outweigh the perceived action. For the action doesn't happen where we are used to seeing it, as the majority of it happens inside the heads of the protagonists instead of in a battlefield or the deck of a space cruiser.
One of the past masters of this style of writing is Zoran Zivkovic, and his recently published novella Seven Touches Of Music, available in the United States through AIO Publishers, offers further proof of just how good he is. In it he introduces elements of the bizarre into the mundane with eerie and thought provoking results.
Music has been thought to be able to work various forms of magic on listeners with its power to inspire powerful emotions, or comfort a troubled heart. Expectant mothers play music to their unborn children in the hopes of influencing their development, and hospitals will play music to coma patients in the hopes that it will provide them comfort on some level, and perhaps even trigger a reaction in the deeper levels of the unconscious mind. In Seven Touches Of Music Zivkovic takes this premise and examines the reactions that of seven people touched by music.
An autistic child hearing a piece of music during an art class mysteriously breaks the pattern of drawing circles that he has been following for months by writing out a sequence of numbers. When the doctor working with him asks a mathematician friend if there is any significance to them, he is told that they are "…one of the fundamental values of nature, the fine-structure constant…" Some how or other a six year old autistic child has written out the decimal that defines life while listening to Chopin. Even more odd, is that no matter how many times the doctor repeats the experiment, the child never deviates from his set pattern again.
Five more seemingly unconnected instances of music impacting on normally staid citizens follow after this opening chapter. A librarian's desktop computer catches fire after it starts playing the music from a dream she had, and mysteriously bringing the dream to life as a video. In the dream a library filled with ancient scrolls containing the wisdom of the world is destroyed. A widower inherits his wife's tom cat and penchant for haunting secondhand stores. One day he brings home a music box that he very carefully winds in the hopes that it still plays. Meanwhile the cat has climbs into the box in which the music box was packed. Mysteriously when he comes out he is a she and time has shifted. For when the widower follow his "new cat" into the living room, he sees a younger version of himself, his wife, and children sitting around the dinner table; a scene which persists until the music box runs down.
A staid, middle class matron finds herself having to make an unwanted train trip in the middle of the winter to visit her sick sister. When the train is delayed by the weather the music of a hurdy-gurdy played by an old gypsy gives her visions of the future which show disasters happening to her fellow passengers. A painter paints a series of paintings while listening to a band playing in the park, and when he hangs them on his wall at home they appear to form a pattern, a puzzle that no matter how long he stares at he just can't quite solve.
What is there about the music that is causing these seemingly different people to all connect with something beyond reality and to have visions outside their own time, or glimpses of the pattern that makes up life. Yet if we look closely at these people they do have something in common; in one way or another they are all imprisoned by a routine or a lifestyle that seemingly has cut them off from the outside world. The autistic child lives in his head, the librarian is trapped by the routine of a marriage gone stale, the widower has refused to engage the world for years, the old lady in the waiting room has cut herself off from everyone, and the painter has lived according to a rigid, self-imposed, schedule since his retirement.
In each case the music seeps through their defences and elicits responses that in most instances throw their carefully ordered world into disarray. With the exception of the autistic child, because we can not know how he reacts, each of the other individuals has their view of the world radically altered. Lids that have been jammed onto emotions for years begin to pop their rivets, much to the individual's consternation.
For a novel like Seven Touches Of Music to work we have to believe in the characters and their circumstances sufficiently that the impact the music has on their lives becomes as significant to us as it does to them. Zivkovic has not only made his characters utterly convincing, but his depiction of their lives, and the environment they live in, are detailed in such a manner that we can feel the shock to their systems when they are given their brief glimpses into the unknown.
As he builds the story to its conclusion, it's in the final two scenarios that Zivkovic starts to tie together the separate threads of his story, each character adds another layer to the mystery of the music and its relationship to the events in the story. In the first story the music is a known quality, a piece that one of the protagonists is familiar with, but from there on in it becomes an unknown agent that is being released on unsuspecting victims. At least, they seem to think of themselves as being victimized, but are they?
Seven Touches Of Music is beautifully written story where on the surface nothing much seems to happen, yet each character in the book travels further than most heroes do on epic quests. The action takes place inside the characters as they come to grips with the new awareness of the world that the music has gifted to them. It's the questions that this book asks not the answers it provides that makes it interesting, and as long as you're willing to take that trip with the characters, it will be one of the most rewarding reads you've had in a long time.