Flying Saucer Rock And Roll by Howard Waldrop

I’m the sort of reader who tends not to read introductions. By and large I’m interested in the meat of it – the stories – and if I want or need more context I’ll find it in a longer biography or critical work. In my experience, the introductions of the sort we see here – appreciative bio- and bibliographical sketches of a few hundred words – rarely really add much to the story they introduce, and occasionally they can start things off on the wrong note.

The introduction to this one ends with this dread sentence:

In the classic story that follows, one which has assumed cult favourite status over the years, he brings together flying saucers and a rock and roll band – with some rather startling results.

Cult favourite. The middle of the 80s – this story was published in 1985 – was the golden age of the cult favourite. Back then, the recent past was beginning to resurface through the medium of television, via both cable channels with hours of airtime to fill and the explosion of the home video market hungry for content.

The cult movie started to go mainstream, and the nostalgia era began to focus on the baby boomer childhood being replayed before them. It’s more or less the period between Elvis going into the army, which brought the fifties to a close, and the assassination of JFK, which brought the sixties into being. It’s the kind of influence that sunk into the mainstream through movies like Stand By Me, Diner and Dirty Dancing and was the breeding ground for the type of movie that began to dominate the idea of the ‘cult classic’ – The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Repo Man, Gremlins, Amazon Women On The Moon and huge list of lesser movies (yes, lesser even than Amazon Women On The Moon), with a rock and roll soundtrack and attitude.

This story fits right in to that 80s trend. It’s set just as The Beatles are driving rock and roll and doowop off the charts. Our heroes are a group of boys who’ve formed a close harmony group – The Kool-Tones – and hope to get somewhere singing a capella versions of rock classics like The Five Satins’ ‘(I Remember) In The Still of the Night’, Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, Frankie Lymon’s ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, and so forth.

They’re working class kids – a mix of black and white – who live on the edge of juvenile delinquency. The main character is Leroy, the 12 year old counter-tenor who’s run away from a foster home and lives with his sister in the city trying to avoid the authorities. He has two dreams of escape – one of being of being a rock and roll star and one he finds in his collection of books abut UFOs.

One evening, the band find themselves in the wrong gang territory – in typical Sharks and Jets fashion – and must defend their honour in a singing contest or have to drink a quart of piss each. The latter half of the story is a description of the contest and its amazing climax which involves – fleetingly – a UFO.

I’ve read this story before and I think about it now the same as I thought then: it’s a nice story, but is it science fiction? When I was a kid, this was the sort of ‘science fiction’ story that would annoy me: where are the aliens, the robots and the space ships? It’s basically a mainstream story with a science fiction flourish to the climax. The UFO itself could be an angel or a god and the story wouldn’t have to change too much. Maybe that’s the point: Waldrop is proposing the non-nuts and bolts theory of UFOs. Leroy’s own feelings about UFOs seem to reflect this idea, in part at least:

Leroy hadn’t read any more books by people who claimed they’d been inside the flying saucers or met the Neptunians or such. He read only the ones that gave histories of the sightings and asked questions, like why was the Air Force covering up? Those books never told you what was in the UFOs, and that was good because you could imagine it for yourself.

UFOs and other Fortean phenomena were a big feature of classic science fiction, in prose – this one’s a bit like Don’t Look Now – and films, and mined for camp nostalgia by the cult classic movies of the 80s. This story does the same thing. It’s another one that’s a good read, but closely wedded to the concerns of its times and not really science fiction of the purest sort.

Themes: cult favourite, Forteanism, rock and roll, nostalgia, low lifes

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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