Story of the Week: "Hobnoblin Blues" by Elizabeth Bear

I generally dislike stories which merge popular music and literature. Too often, this subgenre of fiction feels like a literary short cut where authors use the goodwill and world building from a style of music--be it rock and roll, rap, blues, or so on--to make up for deficiencies in their own stories. For example, if a story features a character murdering his mother while listening to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," the author doesn't need to do as much literary heavy lifting with character development and emotional resonance because readers can use their knowledge of the song to fill the story's missing pieces.

In addition, the use of today's popular music in fiction too often strikes me as overly dated and elitist. Overly dated because while today's readers may know a song that hit the top ten a year ago, is it likely tomorrow's readers can say the same? Or that future readers will have the same emotional reaction to the song? As for elitist, too many songs referenced in fiction are rather obscure, giving the reader a feeling that the author is playing games like a character from the movie High Fidelity (i.e., thumbing their nose at anyone who doesn't know their favorite cutting-edge musician).

But now that I've ranted about how not to use music in literature, let me give you an example of how to do it right: "Hobnoblin Blues" by Elizabeth Bear. My new story of the week is found in the February 2008 issue of Realms of Fantasy and features the Norse trickster god Loki, who has been exiled to earth and is living as a glam/punk rock star of the 1970s and 80s. While Bear uses the themes and tropes from these musical eras to flesh out her story's background, the tale itself is totally unique, featuring a gender-defying and mortal Loki desperate to share his knowledge with humanity before he/she dies. In this way, Bear has picked up on a theme of modern pop music which fiction writers too often ignore: how every bimbo and bimguy who finds success strumming a guitar or hacking out a boy-band melody suddenly feels an irrepressible urge to change the world. But where most pop stars merely use their socially conscious pose to be trendy, the Loki of Bear's story actually has something important to tell the world. And the gods help us if we ignore him/her. And the gods help us if we actually listen.

One of the strengths of Bear's story is her amazing writing style, which alternates between rock magazine-style interviews with Loki, rock articles about him/her, and the point of view of Loki's assistant Hobnoblin, who was exiled along with his master. While I've seen stories using interview and article writing styles go horribly wrong, in Bear's hands it simply goes wonderfully right. In addition, Bear has created a Loki with whom readers emotionally connects--a rare feat whenever one is writing about god-like creatures, let alone one so delved into as Loki. In short, this is a great story. If you're not already a subscriber to Realms of Fantasy, look for a copy in your local bookstore in the next few weeks.