Recently, we featured a story about a short science fiction work entitled Players of the Nuclear Theremin, by David Barron. If you'll recall, PotNT is about a small band of apprentice pilots who travel through space and time in ships controlled via theremins. Their mission is simple - discover new planets suitable for life, deliver colonies, and check in every few centuries to see how things are going. It's definitely not your typical use of the theremin, which is why it really caught my attention.
In fact, I enjoyed PotNT so much, I asked Mr. Barron to tell us more about himself and how the story came about. Read on to see what he said - and why he chose the term thereminers instead of thereminists!
TW: How did you first learn about the theremin?
DB: All science fiction writers come with a huge background of classic books and movies, and the most classic of all is “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. I was about 8 when I first saw it--on VHS, of ourse, not in theaters--with my mother, and when I heard the main theme I asked her what it was. She shrugged: “I don’t know.” For me, though, that theremin sound became the ‘Sensawunda Theme’ that scored, in my imagination, many of the science fiction stories--especially of the adventure! sub-genre--as well as horror stories in the H.P. Lovecraft style.
It was a while though, before I actually saw a theremin, or knew the name for it, and that happened in university. One of my friends in university was a jazz major (she’s a pro now). She played the saxophone, but on the side she was a thereminer. The first time saw her bring out the box and set up the amp I had no idea what was going on, but then I heard the Sensawunda Theme and the mystery was solved.
TW: Do you play the theremin yourself?
DB: I took the requisite piano lessons in my youth and haven’t entirely forgot them, and I’m a fair bass vocalist in dire need, but I’m so much better at writing by nature that I never found the focus to take up an instrument, especially surrounded as I was, in university, by musicians. But, a few years later, when I was about to go to Asia for a foreign aid assignment--think “The Sex Lives of Cannibals”, but less intense--they recommended I take a musical instrument of some kind, for mental health reasons.
I wasn’t about to go out and purchase something, but my friend couldn’t carry her theremin, a Moog Etherwave, around on the road with her, so she suggested that I purchase it from her. And, lo, it fit in my luggage and wasn’t too pricey--she threw in the amp for free, even--so I bought it.
It sat in the box for a couple of months until I got tired of my neighbors blasting music through all hours of the night and decided to take my revenge. I used YouTube theremin tutorials to see what to do, and I got the ‘theory’ down...but I won’t make any claims for practice. I’m sure the neighbors thought my house was haunted, but at least they stopped playing “Barbie Girl” all night.
Sadly, it has since perished after surviving two further Asian countries, but I intend to replace it in a couple months, once I’m back in the USA. I’ll probably pick up a Moog Etherwave Plus, so that I can get serious about learning. Writing is not an ‘exhibition skill’, so every writer should have a non-writing talent to show off at parties.
TW: Do you have a favorite thereminist or band?
DB: I’m picking up a few, here and there, from following Theremin World, but I can’t say as I do. As I’m in Southeast Asia, I’m isolated from the world of music...for now. I’d be interested in owning one of those theremin-playing robots, though. I’d love to have that in the background as I write.
TW: Where did the inspiration for Players of the Nuclear Theremin come from?
DB: The initial spark for the story was envisioning the rotating galaxy and assuming that, over geological (astronomical?) time, any number of exo-planets could theoretically be in the same position as Earth, if you could figure out where to look. That’s all well and good as a concept, but how could I make it interesting? The team of explorer characters appeared ready-made down to their names, as often happens, so I sat down and let my brain write. After the opening set the tone, the title pretty much wrote itself--this is classic Science Fiction, so of course they’re ‘nuclear’ theremin--and the story coalesced over the course of about a week.
TW: The theremin is mostly used as a musical instrument and is starting to become more usable as a gestural control instrument (with the addition of MIDI or CV outputs). How did you arrive at using it as a control mechanism for space flight / time travel?
DB: The opening brought the theremin in without my planning, whether because I had just finished playing or because the Sensawunda Theme was in my head, and it worked great. The story wanted something that took a lot of skill and that didn’t have a high margin of error, that was clearly evocative of a real-world sound while still being mysterious. Besides, I wanted a more interesting word than ‘pilot’, and got ‘thereminer’ (which I chose over ‘thereminist’ purely for aesthetics, and dialogue flow.)
Above that, I think the idea of the theremin meshes with classic Science Fiction so well, that I couldn’t drop it once it had latched on to the story, even if I’d wanted. Skill has always been a core feature of science fiction, and it sets these characters apart from their world.
TW: Any more theremin-inspired works coming up?
DB: One of my current projects is a horror novella (working title: “ed”) at the moment - terror beneath the Pacific, doom on the surface. Plot aside, and no spoiler, the theremin is serving as a communications method between the villainous human quislings and the horrors from the deep. Spooky stuff.
Future projects: I consider every short story I write to be an ‘egg’ for a book, and Players of the Nuclear Theremin has hatching room for expansion. It has a deliberate focus on only one character’s viewpoint (Jess) at the expense of the others, and is tightly edited around her career. The world-building is all in the background, but some of it is quite interesting, and I wouldn’t mind exploring it further, when I have more time.
On the ‘dream’ side, when I re-read the story to prepare for this interview, I was reminded that Players of the Nuclear Theremin is the right length for a 40-minute TV episode, so I anticipate adapting it as a script. The soundtrack pretty much writes itself, don’t you think?
Well, there you have it! Players of the Nuclear Theremin is available as an e-book at most popular online retailers. It's also available in a collection of 16 other short stories by Mr. Barron called A Future Darkly.