Titles–book titles, poem titles, story titles–come from a variety of places. In their purest form, they emerge from the work itself, encapsulating the theme in a few words. However, they can bend the light to the piece to the extent that people occasionally struggle to understand how the author came up with his title. In rare cases, such as with my latest science fiction novel, the title comes first, the story comes second, and, if you’re lucky, as I was, the context behind the title comes last.
With that in mind, here is the passage of the novel when the title emerges, from a conversation between the protagonist–Riley, an advanced-model android, and his very first musician mentors, a man named Moze and his son, Joe.
Joe took his father’s guitar and handed it to Riley. “Play me something. Maybe I can show you what I mean.”
Riley took the guitar and Moze held onto the bass. Then the android closed his eyes, thought, and then pulled up a memory file of an old spiritual tune his grandmother had taught him. It was more difficult with the guitar, since she played it on the keyboards, but he managed to interpret it well enough that Moze and Joe picked up on it and played along. At the right point, almost five minutes in, Joe began singing the words Riley had heard his grandma sing for as long as he could remember. He fought through the memories of her, and when they became too strong, he ceased playing. Moze and Joe drew silent as well, and a smattering of applause followed.
“See, that’s what I meant. You’re playing with your mind, not your heart. Are you a vid recorder or are you a man?” asked Joe.
“I don’t understand.”
“You didn’t play a single wrong note. You played that old-ass song like you was there when they wrote it.”
Moze chimed in. “I can push a button on anything with a speaker and make it play it back nice and pretty. You ain’t never gonna convince nobody you a real man by playing music like that. You just a fancy music box is what they’ll say.”
“Then music can’t help me,” said Riley.
“Playing exactly what someone else writes the way they wrote it? No, that won’t help you do anything,” Joe said.
Riley turned and began packing up his belongings. He would need a different plan if he were to discover his consciousness.
Moze looked at his son and nudged him. “Say something.”
The two argued back and forth in a silent language known only to them before Joe said, “Riley, all we’re saying is that you have to play with your heart. If you want to know who you are, close your eyes and make shit up. It’s kind of that simple.”
“‘Make shit up?’ You mean improvisation?” Riley shook his head. “I’m not sure I can do that.”
“Improvise or stay up all night writing new music and play it the next day pretending you’re making it up as you go.”
“Joe’s right,” said Moze. “When they look at you up on that stage, they ain’t gonna care if you play all them notes right. They just want to know if you can swing, if you can make them move. They want to know if you can make them cry.”
Riley stopped packing and looked up at Moze. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
“Then answer this,” said Moze. “If a robot play the blues, I mean the real blues, do it still be funky?”
“Funky?” asked Riley. “Please explain.”
Moze said, “When there’s a crowd, all they want is to feel you in the music and see that you and the music breathe the same air. See, the universe is music, and that means you and the universe are the same thing, that thing they a part of. You show ‘em you feel what you’re playing, and they’ll believe you are whoever you say you are.”
“If you have a soul, it’ll come out in the music,” said Joe.
“How do I know if I can really feel it or if I’m just following my programming?” Riley asked.
“We’re all just following our programming,” said Joe.
“Do me a favor,” said Moze. “I want you to take this big, beautiful bass and pretend it’s your dead grandma. I want you to close your eyes and play me her song.”
“Whatever song she would sing to you if she was here, so you’d know she’d come back. You think you can do that?”
“I will try.”
Riley closed his eyes and began playing. It was soft and slow at first, but Arguela was only soft and slow during her later years. Most of her life, according to the stories she’d told Riley, she spent swimming upstream through adversity or struggling to prove she was more than others assumed. Riley could always imagine the fierce, pounding rhythm of her determination, and that was the beat of her, the complex, harmonic strength she brought to the world he knew. That beat was the rhythm he played now. After three tocks, he realized that while Joe accompanied him on the drums, Moze never joined in. He ceased playing, opened his eyes, and the crowd gathered around him began to applaud, favoring them with loose change they tossed in the hats Moze left about to collect offerings.
To Riley’s right, Moze was in tears.
“Damn, I wish I had met that woman,” was all he said.