The Chimes is Smaill’s debut work, and undoubtedly a stunner. Her background as a poet and a classically trained violinist have clearly prepared her to write a story steeped in music and in the murky, symbolic world of memory. Her slow, dreamy voice is a far cry from Asimov’s dry, dialogue-heavy Foundation, making the narration feel as artful as the world she has created.
Set in London in an unclear time period—perhaps in the near future, perhaps in an alternate present—The Chimes immerses us in a society ruled by music. Merchants sing their wares to the crowd, navigation is handled through melodies, and, most importantly, the community is bonded through the morning and evening Chimes ceremony, played on a massive Carillon. While this world might sound beautiful, something unsettling lurks below the surface. Every citizen of this alternate London suffers memory loss. Most can only recall a day or two past. Through the investigation of a young, seemingly insignificant man named Simon and his mysterious mentor-lover Lucien, Chimes are revealed to be the tool of a tyrannical aristocracy, who subjugate the public through amnesia and a convulsive sickness caused by the deafening sound of the Carillon.
Like China Miéville’s The City & The City, The Chimes hovers on the edge of the science fiction genre, and is more concerned with developing a rich and unsettling urban culture than with exploring the scientific mechanisms that make the imagined world what it is. Besides a few passing references to the relationship between sound, psychology, and physiology, Smaill does not take the time to explain how Chimes gives an entire nation amnesia or causes people to contract a spasmodic disease. Rather, she explores the ramifications of a ruling class who is able to use a single tool to control the minds of an entire population, a scenario which forms the foundation for many dystopias.
The Chimes might actually share more with the dystopia genre than with traditional sci-fi. It follows a basic and recognizable structure: a protagonist is immersed in a dystopian society and unable to recognize the oppression, but slowly uncovers the sinister truth, and then, despite the odds, overturns the oppressive powers. The originality of Smaill’s dystopia is the specific world she has built, and the care with which she writes it. Her description of the music that knits this world together is nothing short of breathtaking: “His hands pull music out of the air. They carve it up; they split the chords. They render what I wrote—what we wrote together—true and beautiful.” Smaill could not get away with such a familiar plot if she did not create such a beautifully rendered landscape to place it in.
Dystopia and science fiction usually do occupy similar space in the imagination. Dystopias often take place in a near future where technology has advanced just beyond its current capacity, and those advanced technologies are often used against the public. The Chimes, rather than creating new technologies, suggests a new way to use an old technology. But rather than dwelling on the science behind using music as a weapon, Smaill uses Chimes as a symbol for the tyrannical power of her dystopia. One of her early descriptions of Chimes communicates its strange combination of beauty and cruelty: “It is not painful, not exactly, but nor is it without pain. I’ve seen men crying, certainly. But who’s to say what it is they’re crying for? It is so strong that one by one we crouch. Our foreheads in our knees, our skulls open to the sky.”
So, how to place The Chimes among other sci-fi oddballs? Like Patternmaster, it does little to justify its less realistic elements. Like The City & The City, it is more interested in the powers behind the phenomenon than in the phenomenon itself. Perhaps The Chimes’ strength is that it avoids sci-fi tropes, but leaves just enough hints to keep itself from edging into the science-fantasy realm (like Patternmaster, for example). Those who are moved by artistic language will appreciate her poetic prose; those who are interested in a coming-of-age story will find Simon’s journey compelling (though they might be disappointed by a somewhat unsatisfying ending); and those who are interested in her world-building will be left with a curiosity for the real science behind weaponized music.
The Chimes may not have the social and political urgency that The Long Earth or Foundation makes use of, but it does give attention to a field of study that not many science fiction works engage with. And Smaill takes full advantage of her central focus, appreciating the beauty of music and exploring a darker side of sound that captures the imagination. And, as all good science-fiction does, she uses an imagined possibility to raise questions about human nature, in this case about how far we will go to manipulate each other, and how ugly our authorities can be.
by Lauren Klepinger