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On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch

On Wings of Song (1979)

by Thomas M. Disch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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(Original Review, 1980-07-27)

A paperback edition of Thomas Disch's "On Wings of Song" has come out, just in time to miss the Hugo balloting deadline. Although most of the novels that get nominated seem to be available in hardback, few seem to hit the mass markets in time for the voting. The shorter categories are even more inaccessible, particularly the nominees that appear in hardback anthologies like Orbit that are only bought by libraries. Is it any wonder then, that so few votes get cast? It's just an example of the fine scientific attitude of not deciding unless all the data is in.

Be that as it may, "On Wings of Song" is a well-written novel with a minimal amount of science fiction in it. It's set in a near-future America that is slowly going down the tubes. The Eastern cities are largely in ruins, energy supplies are so tight that when terrorists blow up the Alaska pipeline the country is plunged into darkness, industry, agriculture, everything is down. The only unfamiliar element in the picture is that astral projection is regularly possible. By plugging into this machine and singing with sufficient soul, one's mind can leave the body and fly about the world at will. The singing is a necessary, though never really justified condition; if you are tone-deaf or emotionless you'll never make it.

The protagonist is raised in Iowa, a state that is so fearful of the religious implications of flying that it has banned the sale of flying equipment and even frowns upon music in general. Naturally it becomes his life's ambition to fly. He lacks real musical talent, however, and so the book becomes story of his steady degradation in search of his goal. Only when he reaches the very bottom, by becoming a concubine of a castrati’s opera singer, does he come close to taking off.

The reason why this is only barely science fiction is that the flying part of it is hardly touched on. Any transcendent experience could be substituted for it and the plot would work out much the same. Aside from an increase in religious fanaticism in Iowa, no social implications of it are mentioned. People in New York refer to it as casually as if it were a new kind of drink. Disch could be saying that it'll be business as usual in spite of such changes, but I think that he just isn't interested in what is basically a ridiculous premise. Instead he takes a cynic's delight in describing the decay of the country and the humiliation of his characters. The writing is funny and clever enough to pull you through the book, but it leaves a bad aftertaste.

PS. I'm against the idea of rating books we describe in this BBS:

a) because people's tastes differ so much that the ratings
will be meaningless and
b) because you're trying to quantify something, namely the
quality of a book, that is not really quantifiable.

If a description here and a few minutes standing in the Coop or wherever reading the first couple of pages isn't enough, tough.

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.] ( )
  antao | Nov 17, 2018 |
I gave up on this one the first time around, but came back to it after a break of several months. It still took me quite a while to make it through, but I am glad I did and plan to seek out Disch's other novels.

The book provides an interesting juxtaposition of the surreal, the mundane, the profound and the profane. I never particularly warmed to the protagonist Daniel Weinreb. But I am kind of a sucker for stories that take as a given the transcendental nature of artistic expression. I didn't really enjoy the first two thirds of the book, but was kind of blown away by the last third.

This is a book where people pay a price for everything they do. It certainly has interesting things to say about the prospective future of the United States, things that feel if any thing more relevant today than they might have in 1979. ( )
  clong | May 22, 2016 |
One of those books that can make you ache with something resembling what the main character faces. Provides a gloriously poignant story that can transform us by showing us the true meaning of the word "empathy." ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
An odd but well-written alternative future novel in which food shortages and civil unrest have split America, and people have learnt how to leave their bodies and fly as fairies when they sing with enough intensity. ( )
  annesadleir | Apr 17, 2012 |
Dystopian vision of a Bible-Belt police state America. The economy has collapsed—with millions fleeing their bodies as 'angels' set free by music. We follow Daniel's struggle to find his song (and love). Heady mix of 70's social and political satire with SF's weakness of ideas over high quality writing. ( )
1 vote ablueidol | Aug 20, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas M. Dischprimary authorall editionscalculated
Moore, ChrisCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553136674, Paperback)

In his seventh novel, Disch reaches a literary high point in the field of science fiction. At once hilarious and frightening, it follows Daniel Weinreb as he attempts to escape the repressive laws and atmosphere of the isolationist State of Iowa. A rich black comedy of bizarre sexual ambiguity and adventurism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:32 -0400)

In a disturbing vision of the future, Daniel Weinreb leaves behind the repression and censorship of the Midwest to pursue a career in New York, despite the famine and poverty of the overpopulated East Coast.

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