Stars Fell on Alabama

ASFOCTNOV2014webThis story appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It was written through the end of June into the second week of July 2013 (with a break during which I finished another jazz-centric SF story, which isn’t yet published); that is, I wrote this a few months after I started living in Saigon.

If you enjoyed this novella, I hope the story notes below only add to that enjoyment.  And if you haven’t checked it out already, you may also enjoy my previous jazz-SF novella from Asimov’s, “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues.”


“For fans of jazz, particularly early jazz, the story provides an uncommon look into the life of a performer of that art, someone fighting to get by in a time of racial injustice that made post civil-war United States society a sewer drain of hypocrisy and hatred… the compelling combination of physics, racism, love triangle, organized crime, and train caper make this story the star of this issue.” — Harlen Bayha, Tangent Online

“Baby Tremblay is a noted jazz cornet player in 1929 Kansas City, but he’s on the run from a local mafioso. But he’s not just that. He was born a slave in 1817 in Alabama as Caesar Little. In 1833, the Leonid meteor shower had rained stars all around him. One “star” had spoken to him and he took it. It changed him. He stopped aging and the star taught him things. It also taught him how to make music. The story involves his train escape from Kansas City, more of the power of the star, and the appearance of a familiar great scientist. Well done!” — SFRevu

“It’s nicely told, capturing a period feel well, and there’s a particularly nice paragraph-long sentence in which a sense of wonder is bestowed upon him. And in addition to mention of Heisenberg there’s a guest appearance from another giant of science.” —

“A lot of neat stuff here, so much, in fact, that it would easily fill a much longer work, or perhaps a sequel. There’s a lot of 1929 packed in, including a cameo appearance of a significant figure from science. But the incident with the old woman on the train is nothing but wrongness, as is the situation in which Baby leaves Walter, the senior porter, with no apparent twinges of conscience. I can’t have sympathy for him after that, which is too bad, after the story started out so promisingly.” — Lois Tilton, Locus


It’s not surprising that when I moved to Saigon, I started playing the saxophone again: I had time for it, finally. But it’s also not surprising that one of the first things I wrote after that was another jazz-SF story.

Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald version of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” since I heard it on a CD I ended up borrowing from someone who didn’t want it back in high school. Thing is, the song wasn’t written till long after the time this story was set. (And the Louis/Ella version wasn’t recorded until 1956!)

But the meteor shower that the song was named after? That’s real: it was a Leonid shower of 1833, and all the stuff about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln all having seen it is true. (I haven’t seen anything about  whether or how deeply Tubman was affected by it, but if Lincoln and Douglass’ reactions are any indication, pretty much anyone who saw it was profoundly moved by the sight.) This was also the meteor shower that led to the commencement of the modern study of meteor astronomy.

I was slightly leery about including Lincoln’s reaction, by the way. My impression is that the story I learned in school as a Canadian schoolkid about Lincoln and abolition was very much simplified (for example, along these lines). Still, it seemed a shame to leave him out, when he is on record as having witnessed and been affected deeply by the Leonid Shower, as were Douglass and Tubman. (And, also, I suspect Lincoln’s reputation still hadn’t been quite so thoroughly reexamined in 1929 as it has been today.)

Regarding the deep effect on people of the Leonid Shower: also true is the stuff about (at least some) white slave-owners on some plantations believing it was the end of the world, and gathering the slaves to tell them about their lineages. That story is taken from the recollections of Amanda Young, which are most easily accessible online in this set of lecture notes. (It casts interesting light on the psychology of those particular slave-owners, doesn’t it? On some level, deep down, they unquestionably knew that the system in which they lived was wrong, plain and simple .)

Believe it or not, that B-flat that Baby “hears,” as the deepest sound in the universe? It, too, is real–it’s the “sound” vibrations of a massive black hole, discovered by English astronomers back in 2003. (Though, yes, yes, there is no sound in space. Read the link for the explanation.) Possibly (probably?) there are deeper tones further out there, but I figured it might be nice to give a shout-out to Dr. Andrew Fabian and his team.

In any case, this story also represents a little bit of speculative jazz archaeology. For one thing, a lot of people still think of New Orleans as the city of jazz, but their information is a hundred years out of date. Anyone who is into this music today knows that while lots of places have a vibrant local jazz scene, these days the “center of the jazz universe” (in drummer T.S. Monk’s words) is New York City. But the transition didn’t go New Orleans-NYC, not by a long shot.

The early history of jazz, like any form of art/entertainment, is deeply intertwined with economic, social, and technological history. (For example, a saxophone is a really high-tech piece of mechanical hardware. If you don’t believe me, go buy one and take it apart, then put it back together again. Good luck with that!)

So, yes, jazz arose in New Orleans, alright, but then came the Great Migration. In the 1920s and 1930s, but especially following the dreadful 1927 flooding of the Mississippi (after which hundreds of thousands of people, many of them African-Americans, ended up stranded in refugee camps for months), many black southerners from New Orleans moved north; among them were many musicians, and the world center of jazz conglomerated in Kansas City, where many settled to play their music in the local clubs. In the 1940s and 1950s, economics drove them from Kansas City to New York City, which was then crowned jazz capital (and has remained such to this day).

(That’s why, though I considered setting the story in Tulsa during the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, I finally went with Kansas City instead.)

Kansas City was also a major transportation hub, which was also a reason to attract African-Americans migrating up from the South: Pullman porters (who worked on trains owned by the Pullman Company) were exclusively black, and while it was actually a really rough job–and gave rise to the first black union in America, which of course the Pullman Company immediate set out to bust–it also gave was one of those jobs (some have argued, the job) that helped establish the black middle class. (Retired porters sometimes brag about meeting celebrities, but I’ve noticed that more often, they talk about how the job let them travel and see the country. Here’s an example.)

Jazz’s sojourn in Kansas City doesn’t really get talked about much today–it was kind of news to me when I heard about it–though if you’re really interested, this video explores the history a bit:

For those who skipped the video, I’ll summarize it in one line: K.C. was a really important stepping stone between the New Orleans style and the later mutated forms of jazz that arose in other places, especially in New York. And if you pay close attention, you’ll find little hints of Kansas City’s former prominence throughout jazz, such as in song titles like Charlie Parker’s “K.C. Blues” (a video I recommend you don’t skip, below):

That said, this story takes place long before Bebop, and Charlie Parker, showed up. No, the true soundtrack for this story is a piece of music I first encountered on the wonderful blog of Ethan Iverson, the pianist with the group The Bad Plus, specifically in this post. Check it out:

Hearing that made me want very badly to write a Jazz Age story around Kansas City, but set on a train–and with some of the rhythm and drive of a train speeding, juggernaut-like, toward its destination. Seriously, I probably never would have written this story had Iverson not posted that blog post!

But I was also enthralled by the story of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower, and its various witnesses and their reactions. I wanted to write a story that somehow connected those two moments through a character who somehow lived long enough to experience both of them: one, in the deep and shameful past, when the potential of African-Americans was brutally and irresistibly suppressed, and the other, in a moment when, while suppression continued, the descendants of those people managed to do amazing things with the sliver of so-called “freedom” now allowed them by the state that oppressed them for so long.

(Obviously “allowed” doesn’t mean that their freedom was given: what is inborn cannot be “given,” but sometimes it must be won from oppressors. When oppressors remains in power, they “allow” increased freedom to occur, to whatever degree they deem necessary to further their own agendas.)

And, of course, I wanted to write an SF story, for which the title “Stars Fell on Alabama” is obviously very suggestive.

I also have been wanting to experiment with narrative structures other than the one that has come to dominate mainstream (Hollywood) film and popular fiction, for reasons I discussed previously here. I’ve been thinking a lot about utopian and satirical modes especially–the Wellsian utopian aesthetic and imagination, and the satire of Defoe, and Voltaire, and of the Coen Brothers, who are, I think, the best and darkest satirists around today. My wife had been watching Coen Brothers films very carefully, and I joined her for some of them, so that mode of storytelling–so different from the usual Hollywood narrative structure, and the usual structure of a lot of fiction–made an impression on me.

Then things started to fall into place: Kansas City had jazz, but it also had the mafia, and with that realization, everything came together, logline and all:

November 10, 1929, on the train from Kansas City to Chicago: a jazz man with a secret, a mobster with a mission, a woman with an obsession, and… the alien artifact that each of them would kill to have.

There are a number of figures in the story based on real historical people: for example, the DiGiovanni brothers really were high-level mobsters in 1920s Kansas City, who operated a grocery store as a front for their bootleg liquor business. Some of the musicians mentioned are real, and the scientist Baby meets on the train is very loosely modeled on Dr. Carl Eckhart, who really did meet Heisenberg during his summer trip to Chicago in 1929, and struggled with the uncertainty principle, though he did finally make peace with the notion, according to what he said in an interview decades later. It’s fun to imagine Baby–and the “fallen star”–having played a role in that peacemaking.

Also, after reading James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” (one of the most well-known and significant jazz stories ever written–here’s a PDF) I felt I had an angle of approach for both the issues of addiction (which, after all, also has a long history in European literary writing), and the racism that my protagonist would encounter throughout his extended lifespan. I also wanted to give some sense of the protagonist’s low expectations from the white people around him, which is one reason why I decided to use the word “Negro” the way I did. It was, at the time, the “polite” word for an African-American, but that doesn’t mean it was always a respectful word. The Gerald Early interview I read on Do the Math not only turned me on to “Sonny’s Blues,” but also to the nuances of that word as used by Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch today, and how using it might help emphasize the awkwardness of the pervasive racism for a modern reader reading a story set in that time. (That is, drive home the overt racism that was inherent in interactions even when people were being technically polite. Sort of a fascism for nice people riff.)

As for what kind of music Baby was playing on his cornet, well: it’s not the kind of jazz I usually listen to, though I’ve been checking it out a little more lately as I fill in my musical blank spots. (A bit like reading pulp SF for the historical perspective.) A good example is Bennie Moten’s band:

But of course, the star was warping Baby’s sense of music, such that I imagine it as some sort of proto-Bebop, except more harshly angular and still very lyrical, if that makes sense. (This vagueness, I’ll add, is mainly a limitation of my imagination. What would jazz as envisioned by a man under the intoxicating influence of an alien artifact sound like? I mean, anyone? Anyone? Got an answer to that question?) I avoided discussing the character of the alien-influenced music too much mainly because I didn’t want to enshrine disrespect for the artists who developed jazz by implying it was not their hard work or creativity, but an alien artifact, that was responsible for their achievements. Cute idea, yes, but also, under its surface, a revolting thing to suggest about so many amazing artists laboring under such circumstances as these people did. It’s important that Baby’s music is weird, but not too weird: he’s a big name trumpeter in town, but his interaction with The Star is necessarily a form of communication. Jazz music is complex enough that the Star has confused it for language, and continues attempting to communicate in the “language” of music despite the communication being less than, er, communicative. But Baby is still a great musician in his own right; the Star influences him, but doesn’t shape jazz.

Last thing: since I had an obvious Coen-Brothers frame in my mind, I actually struggled to figure out whether Baby would get out of this train in one piece. I love those Coen Brothers films where nobody gets out alive (or if they do, they wish they didn’t) and am a big fan of the game Fiasco, inspired by exactly those movies. In fact, my wife was just discovering the joy of those precise films–Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There, especially–when I started work on this story.

But Baby ended up seeming to me somehow emblematic: his extended lifespan allowed him to live through (and survive) so much of American history, and in a sense, killing him off at the end seemed unfair, cruel, and somehow metaphorically the wrong ending for his particular, weird song. Peril with a little hope, some wits and resources, but real danger looming still, sounded like a better ending cadence to me…

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