Obscure short story

The thread about tunes getting stuck in your head reminded me of this.

I remember a short story about some scientific type coming up with a way of producing tunes with an incredible “hook”, ie, you couldn’t get the damn things out of your head. The guy finally found the “perfect” melody, and was found oblivious to the world, lost in his latest creation and nobody could bring him back.

My memory is hazy, and I can’t remember the story resolution. It may have been published in an SF venue or in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The publication date would have been in the 60’s or 70’s.


Chris Miller’s “Pipe Dream,” which appeared in the National Lampoon back around 1972 or so, was about a tremendously powerful form of dope that appeared in the East Village…the protagonist of the story was a guitarist, and it helped him create gorgeous music; his neighbor was an artist, and his painting immediately improved, etc.

Turned out the stuff they were smoking was the fecal matter of a race of friendly space aliens. “The shit is *shit?”

I think this is one of the scientific tall stories from Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart. I think the title of the individual story was “The Ultimate Melody”. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t first published in a magazine, but don’t know which one, or when.

I remember “Pipe Dream” and Chris Miller’s other hilarious stuff in National Lampoon - “Groin Larceny”, “The Toilet Papers”, “The Sexualization of the Veranda” (“Yes, vagina, there IS a Santa Claus”).

Nope. This was definitely a “straight” genre short story, perhaps with some humorous elements, but not overtly intended as farce. I don’t know whether it was in an SF genre publication, or a mystery publication. If not Ellery Queen’s (which my parents subscribed to), and it’s of a bit later vintage than I’m remembering, perhaps Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (which I subscribed to for a while).

Other uses of “musicolalia” as a plot device in SF would include Alfred Bester’s “Demolished Man” - “Tenser, said the tensor”.

Steve Wright - you slipped in while I was replying to Ike’s post - that sounds right. I read “Tales from the White Hart” at some point, and it’s about that sort of material.


(sorry, I should have poked google before replying and saved an extra post for this confirmation)

That’s it. Since you remembered the title, I was able to find “The Ultimate Melody”, by Arthur C. Clarke, published in 1957 in “Tales from the White Hart”. As well as a couple story descriptions which made it clear it was what I was thinking of.

Thanks again.

While it isn’t what you’re looking for, Fredric Brown used the same idea in his story “Nothing but Gingerbread Left.” It’s a rhyme, not a tune, and it helps us defeat the Nazis.

Of course, later, there was that killing joke in Monty Python (not to be confused with “The Killing Joke” in Batman).

This idea of “information too compulsive/obessive/whatever to see/hear” seems to turn up quite a bit in SF. In addition to the Clarke story, there are a couple of shorts by SF critic Dave Langford (“Blit” and “What Happened at Cambridge IV”) involving an image which is so fractally complicated that, once somebody’s seen it, they can’t think about anything else. (Sly references to these stories crop up in Greg Egan’s Permutation City - “the Langford Mind-Erasing Fractal Basilisk” - and Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division). Come to think of it, didn’t the intrepid crew of the Enterprise at one point have a plan to off the Borg with a similar tactic?

There’s also the conclusion of Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, where a scientist who’s been fed the secrets of the universe by a superior alien intelligence dies when his brain can’t process the information.

In perhaps more exalted literary circles, there’s an Ambrose Bierce story in which a horror writer produces a story that’s fatal when read in “The Suitable Surroundings” of the title. And there’s Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Zahir”, the “zahir” being an object which, once seen, cannot be forgotten, causing whoever sees it to become obsessed.

Any others out there?

There was a story in Aboriginal called Skull City that used a repetive beat to transcend dimensions.
There was another (F. Pahl?) called The Demolished Man that used an advertising jingle to avert ESP cops.

In the Monty Python film ‘And now for something completely different’ there was a comedian who discovered a joke so funny that anyone hearing it would die, in the sketch, it was used as a war weapon in WW2 against the germans, but had to be transalted by a team of people who only saw one word each, one poor translator accidentally saw two words and was hospitalised.

The Demolished Man was by Alfred Bester, not Frederick Pohl – it won him the very first Hugo for Best Novel, and I wish someone would make a determined effort to properly film it.

I’m ashamed – I’ve read all of the above authors and I didn’t think of any of the stories mentioned above. I’m going to have to go back and reread my collection.

Infinite Jest has the same theme, though drawn out to a thousand pages. A Videotape, once viewed, leaves the user doing anything they can do to get more viewings… they will eventually die happily in front of the VCR.

No mention yet of Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price? In “Centerburg Tales” 1951, one story features a juke box tune which compels listeners to sing along.

“Punch the ticket,
Punch with care,
Punch in the presence of the passenger.”

McCloskey’s the author of “Make Way for Ducklings” as well.

Which, of course, derives from Mark Twain’s “Punch, Brothers”, about the insidious effect of the titular jingle. Twain’s might be the earliest occurence of this trope; it’s the earliest I’m aware of.

Not to mention Larry Niven’s ‘Wireheads’ - current addicts (they are addicted to a slow trickle of electric current delivered directly to the brain’s pleasure centre.

Very similar is Red Dwarf’s ‘better than life’ interactive game, which you basically plugged into your brain and they were so addictive that you would never stop playing until you die of starvation.

Thought of another one… the “blipverts” in the pilot episode of the short-lived Max Headroom TV series. These were TV adverts compressed into a very short time; lots of information presented very quickly - so quickly, in fact, that it would overload the nervous systems of some viewers, and make them explode.

But blipverts weren’t addicitive – completely different concept IMHO.