SFF Song of the Week: Adam Roberts

After a brief absence, the SFF Song of the Week feature is back on an irregular but fairly often basis.

This weeks’ choice is from one of the smartest SF writers around, Adam Roberts, who is an academic of distinction and author of subtle and brilliant novels like New Model Army, Stone and Salt. His recent novel Yellow Blue Tibia is a particular favourite of mine. It’s a political fable and a thriller and is wonderfully funny. In fact, it may even be the second funniest things ever; second only to me at, ahem, my 21st birthday party.

Over to you Adam…

1979: Gary Numan ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’

The crucial, telltale feature of the title of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army’s doleful synth-anthem ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ is found in the inverted commas isolating the word ‘friend’. Could anything be more expressive of the surly, teenage, miserabilist frame-of-mind than that little trick of punctuation?

Ah, but I love this song: the epitome of New Wave synth-pop, with its wonderful octave-striding bassline, its long-held whining treble notes, and Numan’s own half-gulped, slightly nasal vocals. It is supposedly based on Philip K Dick’s masterpiece 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (hence the ? in Numan’s title); the book was also of course turned into the film Blade Runner, which, I’ve always thought, really ought to have been called ‘Blade Runner?’. But that said, I’ve always thought it hard to see the parallels between song and source here, over and above a flavour of paranoia and a downbeat tone.

In the late 1970s fans (like me) marvelled at the sheer Power of Glum that Gary Numan was able to convey through the rudimentary portal of a single Top of the Pops performance. Now, looking back, I find myself thinking: ‘hey, you were having sex with several hundred gorgeous female fans, you had more money than the Pope and your own private plane, you were globally famous and adored … so what, precisely, were you so fucking miserable about, you knob?’ But, see, that’s hindsight for you.

It’s cold outside
And the paint’s peeling off of my walls
There’s a man outside
In a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette

Now the light fades out
And I wonder what I’m doing in a room like this
There’s a knock on the door
And just for a second I thought I remembered you

So now I’m alone
Now I can think for myself
About little deals and issues
And things that I just don’t understand
A white lie that night
Or a sly touch at times
I don’t think it mean anything to you

So I open the door
It’s the friend that I’d left in the hallway
‘Please sit down’
A candlelit shadow on a wall near the bed

You know I hate to ask
But are ‘friends’ electric?
Only mine’s broke down
And now I’ve no-one to love

So I found out your reasons
For the phone calls and smiles
And it hurts and I’m lonely
And I should never have tried
And I missed you tonight
So it’s time to leave
You see it meant everything to me

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